December 3, 2009 – Marijuana is California’s largest agricultural commodity with $14 billion in sales yearly, distancing itself from the state’s second largest—milk and cream—which bring in $7.3 billion a year. But California’s coffers only receive a fraction of the marijuana sales, $200 million coming from the sale of medical marijuana. That could all change with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s (D-San Francisco) Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390).

Since February, when the bill was introduced, it has made little headway in the Legislature. But in October, a hearing on the bill was held by the Public Safety Committee; marking the first time a legislative committee held a hearing on marijuana legalization.

AB 390 would create a system that would regulate marijuana much like alcohol is regulated. Those over the age of 21 could purchase pot from vendors with licenses to do so. The state’s Legislative Analyst and the Board of Equalization have estimated that pot sales could bring up to $1.3 billion in revenue yearly. That number is based off a proposed $50-per-oz. levy placed on marijuana purchases and sales tax.

With a projected deficit of $20 billion facing the state next fiscal year, sources of guaranteed revenue are needed. But there are those that believe that the social issues legalizing pot could have far outweigh any economic benefits.

“Why add another addictive element to our society? I don’t think we should criminalize marijuana, but I don’t think having marijuana where you can buy it like cigarettes or alcohol is something we ought to be doing as a society. I believe we are moving in the wrong direction on that,” said Steve Francis, a former San Diego mayoral candidate and founder of the site KeepComingBack.com—a site that focuses on news and research of alcohol and drug addiction.

Francis says that legalizing marijuana would ultimately cost the state money. He cited a report issued by the Marin Institute that found the economic cost of alcohol use is $38 billion annually, with the state covering $8.3 billion for health-care treatment of alcohol-caused illnesses, plus crime costs, traffic incidents and reduced worker productivity. The taxes and fees collected from alcohol sales only cover 22 percent of total government costs. He says there is every reason to believe the same would happen with marijuana.

“Whatever taxes the author of the legislation thinks we are going to collect on the taxation of marijuana will be very little compared to the social costs on California,” he said.

But the economic impact legalizing marijuana could have goes beyond taxation. Nearly a fifth of California’s 170,000 inmates are locked up because of drug-related crimes. Although most are convicted on crimes more severe than possession, legalizing marijuana would save the state $1 billion in law enforcement and corrections costs.

Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray says the best solution is to repeal the prohibition of marijuana, allowing the substance to become regulated and less available to children.

“We couldn’t make this drug any more available if we tried,” he said in TIME. “Unfortunately, every society in the history of mankind has had some form of mind-altering, sometimes addictive substance to use, misuse, abuse or get addicted to. Get used to it. They’re here to stay. So let’s try to reduce those harms, and right now we couldn’t do worse if we tried.”

Even if California were to legalize marijuana, there are those that believe that the gray area between federal and state law would only widen. Since California’s Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, medicinal marijuana has become more accessible to those need it. But it has opened the gates of confusion, as federal laws still consider marijuana illegal. In fact, cannabis is described as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no medical use and cannot be prescribed by a physician. Many California municipalities have been reluctant to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, even though they were legalized 13 years ago.

There has been some indication that the federal government is starting to ease its control of marijuana. A few days after Ammiano introduced AB 390, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that states should be allowed to determine their own rules for medical marijuana and that federal raids on dispensaries would stop in California. President Obama’s nomination of Gil Kerlikowske to be the so-called drug czar and head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy indicated that a softer federal stance on marijuana is being taken. Kerlikowske is the former police chief in Seattle, where he made it clear that going after marijuana possession was not a priority for his department.

A vote by the Public Safety Committee on AB 390 is expected in January. Ammiano said the bill could take between a year and two years before it is heard or voted on in the Legislature. Until then, the debate over decriminalizing marijuana will continue amidst one of California’s worst economic times. BY Landon Bright Source.

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