Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just Say Yep

Sacramento Bee - Smoke weed – help the state?

Marijuana would be sold and taxed openly in California to adults 21 and older if legislation proposed Monday is signed into law.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said his bill could generate big bucks for a cash-starved state while freeing law enforcement agencies to focus on worse crimes.

"I think there's a mentality throughout the state and the country that this isn't the highest priority – and that maybe we should start to reassess," he said.

PhotobucketCritics counter that it makes no sense for a Legislature so concerned about health that it has restricted use of trans fats in restaurants to legalize the smoking of a potentially harmful drug.

"I think substance abuse is just ruining our society," said Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley. "I can't support that."

"I think it's a slippery slope," Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, said of easing pot laws. "We'll do everything we can to defeat it."

Medical use of marijuana already is legal in California, but the new legislation would go a step further by allowing recreational use.

Assembly Bill 390 would charge cannabis wholesalers $5,000 initially and $2,500 annually for the right to distribute weed.

Retail outlets would pay fees of $50 per ounce of cannabis to generate revenue for drug education programs statewide.

The bill would prohibit cannabis near schools. It also would ban smoking it in public places or growing it in public view.

Before California could sell marijuana openly, however, it would have to persuade the federal government to alter its prohibition on pot.

Ammiano said that such a change in federal law might be possible because new President Barack Obama – several years ago – expressed a desire to consider decriminalizing marijuana.

If the federal ban never is lifted, AB 390 would prohibit state and local officers from assisting federal agencies in enforcing marijuana laws.

It would instruct state and local officers not to make arrests for cultivating, selling, possessing, transporting or using the drug.

Capitol visitors interviewed randomly Monday had mixed views about AB 390.

"It makes a lot of sense," said Claudia Murdock, 59, of Folsom. "It's so black market now – and a tremendous amount of money could be generated."

Gabriel Antonio Evans, 29, said people already are acquiring marijuana now, legal or not.

"Like any other drug, if people want to get high, they're going to find a way," he said.

Timotao Parker, a 43-year-old Napa resident, said use of marijuana in the past prompted him to try other drugs.

"It lowers the inhibitions and makes you want to try other stuff, just like alcohol," he said.

Theresa Loya, 43, of Mariposa, said the bill indirectly could affect children.

"I'm afraid it would send the wrong message – that drugs are OK," she said.

Marijuana's supporters and critics often argue over whether pot poses risks.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy contends that short-term effects of marijuana use can range from memory loss to anxiety and increased heart rate.

The state attorney general's office declined to comment Monday on AB 390, as did the U.S. Department of Justice and federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

California reported 16,124 felony and 57,995 misdemeanor arrests linked to marijuana in 2007, the most recent statistics available.

Possessing less than 28.5 grams of cannabis can result in a base fine of up to $100 under state law, an amount that can rise to more than $350 with state and county penalty assessments.

Possessing larger amounts of marijuana can draw a maximum six-month jail sentence and/or a base fine of $500 under state law.

In a state whipsawed by recession and falling retail sales, legalization of marijuana could provide a much-needed financial boon, supporters claim.

"Marijuana already plays a huge role in the California economy," said Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's a revenue opportunity we literally can't afford to ignore any longer."

Gutwillig said the state's prohibition on marijuana also has been "a disaster when it comes to keeping pot out of the hands of young people."

A state-sponsored survey of California children in 2007 found that marijuana had been used by 9 percent of seventh-graders, 25 percent of high school freshmen, and 42 percent of 11th-graders.

Board of Equalization Chairwoman Betty Yee released a statement Monday supporting Ammiano's bill as a way to help law enforcement set priorities while raising new revenues.

AB 390 could generate roughly $1.3 billion per year from marijuana sales – about $990 million from the fee on retailers and $349 million in sales taxes, according to BOE estimates.

Anita Gore, BOE spokeswoman, said the agency estimates the value of marijuana grown annually in California at about $4 billion. Other estimates put the figure as high as $14 billion.

Legalizing marijuana is not supported by the California Narcotics Association, California Police Chiefs Association or California Peace Officers Association, lobbyist John Lovell said.

Lovell said it's "preposterous" to say that AB 390 would free officers to focus on worse crimes.

"Law enforcement activities always have been prioritized," he said.

"But to say that law enforcement should simply write off whole classes of socially destructive conduct I think is very bad public policy."