October 27, 2009-SAN FRANCISCO — These are heady times for advocates of legalized marijuana in California — and only in small part because of the newly relaxed approach of the federal government toward medical marijuana.
State lawmakers are holding a hearing on Wednesday on the effects of a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate the drug — in what would be the first such law in the United States. Tax officials estimate the legislation could bring the struggling state about $1.4 billion a year, and though the bill’s fate in the Legislature is uncertain, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has indicated he would be open to a “robust debate” on the issue.
California voters are also taking up legalization. Three separate initiatives are being circulated for signatures to appear on the ballot next year, all of which would permit adults to possess marijuana for personal use and allow local governments to tax it. Even opponents of legalization suggest that an initiative is likely to qualify for a statewide vote.
“All of us in the movement have had the feeling that we’ve been running into the wind for years,” said James P. Gray, a retired judge in Orange County who has been outspoken in support of legalization. “Now we sense we are running with the wind.”
Proponents of the leading ballot initiative have collected nearly 300,000 signatures since late September, supporters say, easily on pace to qualify for the November 2010 general election. Richard Lee, a longtime marijuana activist who is behind the measure, says he has raised nearly $1 million to hire professionals to assist volunteers in gathering the signatures.
“Voters are ripping the petitions out of our hands,” Mr. Lee said.
That said, the bids to legalize marijuana are opposed by law enforcement groups across the state and, if successful, would undoubtedly set up a legal showdown with the federal government, which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug.
California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, in 1996, but court after court — including the United States Supreme Court — has ruled that the federal government can continue to enforce its ban. Only this month, with the Department of Justice announcement that it would not prosecute users and providers of medical marijuana who obey state law, has that threat subsided.
But federal authorities have also made it clear that their tolerance stops at recreational use. In a memorandum on Oct. 19 outlining the medical marijuana guidelines, Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden said marijuana was “a dangerous drug, and the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime,” adding that “no state can authorize violations of federal law.”
Still, Mr. Lee anticipates spending up to $20 million on a campaign to win passage of his ballot measure in California, raising some of it from the hundreds of already legal medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, which have been recently fighting efforts by Los Angeles city officials to tighten restrictions on their operations.
“It’s a $2 billion industry,” Mr. Lee said of the medical marijuana sales.
Opponents said they are also preparing for a battle next year.
“I fully expect they will qualify,” said John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist for several groups of California law enforcement officials that oppose legalization.
Any vote would take place in a state where attitudes toward marijuana border on the schizophrenic. Last year, the state made some 78,500 arrests on felony and misdemeanors related to the drug, up from about 74,000 in 2007, according to the California attorney general.
Seizures of illegal marijuana plants, often grown by Mexican gangs on public lands in forests and parks, hit an all-time high in 2009, and last week, federal authorities announced a series of arrests in the state’s Central Valley, where homes have been converted into “indoor grows.”
At the same time, however, there are also pockets of California where marijuana can seem practically legal already. At least seven California cities have formally declared marijuana a low priority for law enforcement, with ballot measures or legislative actions. In Los Angeles, some 800 to 1,000 dispensaries of medical marijuana are in business, officials say, complete with consultants offering public relations services and “canna-business management.”
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat and author of the legalization bill, said momentum for legalization has built in recent years, especially as the state’s finances have remained sour.
“A lot of people that were initially resistant or even ridiculed it have come aboard,” Mr. Ammiano said.
In Oakland, which passed a tax on medical cannabis sales in July, several people who signed a petition backing Mr. Lee’s initiative said they were motivated in part by the cost of imprisoning drug offenders and the toll of drug-related violence in Mexico.
“Personally I don’t see a way of getting it under control other than legalizing it and taxing it,” said Jim Quinn, 60, a production manager. “We’ve got to get it out of the hands of criminals both domestic and international.”
Mr. Lovell, the law enforcement lobbyist, however, said those arguments paled in comparison to the potential pitfalls of legalization, including people driving under the influence. He also questioned how much net revenue a tax like Mr. Ammiano is proposing would actually raise. “We get revenue from alcohol,” he said. “But there’s way more in social costs than we retain in revenues.”
The recent history of voter-approved drug reform laws in California is not encouraging for supporters of legalization. Last November, voters rejected a proposition that would have increased spending for drug treatment programs and loosened parole and prison requirements for drug offenders.
None of which seems to faze Mr. Lee, 47, a former roadie who founded Oaksterdam University, a medical marijuana trade school in Oakland, in 2007. Mr. Lee says he plans to use the Internet to raise money, as well as tapping out-of state sources for campaign money.
More than anything, however, Mr. Lee said he was banking on a basic shift in people’s attitudes toward the drug.
“For a lot of people,” he said, “it’s just another brand of beer.” Source.