The decades-old push to legalize marijuana finally gains political momentum in California. But is it the right thing to do?
On Oct. 28, Dale Gieringer did what millions of marijuana smokers have only dreamed of doing: He sat before lawmakers and told them why marijuana should be legal.
Gieringer serves as the state coordinator of the San Francisco-based California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). Founded in 1970, NORML is the nation’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to lobbying governments to legalize the possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana.
“Marijuana should be legal for the same reason that alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other substances are legal,” Gieringer, who holds a doctorate in economics from Stanford University, told the California Assembly Committee on Public Safety. “One: Millions of Californians value and enjoy its use. Two: Their use poses no inordinate hazards to society. Three: The prohibition of marijuana artificially creates crime and black-market traffic in the same way as alcohol prohibition, and four: deprives our economy of legal business and revenues.
“The laws against marijuana wrongly criminalize millions of otherwise law-abiding Californians,” he continued. “Three million Californians used marijuana last year and over 15 million have done so in their lifetimes. Among them are noted professionals and business people, Nobel Laureates, artists and musicians, sports and entertainment stars, and luminaries in this Capitol.”
Gieringer was speaking in support of Assembly Bill 390, the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, the first piece of legislation in California that stands a real chance of lifting the ban on marijuana in the state. The bill was penned five years ago by NORML but never officially put before the legislature until now.
Earlier this year, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco introduced the bill in the Assembly, formally releasing it down the rocky path to law-hood. The proposed bill vies to legalize the possession, sale, cultivation and use of marijuana by people 21 years of age and older. The bill would also prohibit local and state assistance in enforcing federal laws relating to marijuana that are inconsistent with state law.
Introducing the bill “was a visionary decision on his (Ammiano’s) part,” Gieringer says. “He went through the gay rights movement and he knows how much work you have to do to advance radical social change.”
The bill moves forward on a two-year track through the legislature and may look very different after the lawmakers hash it out. Should it eventually pass both houses, then there’s the governor—whoever that may be at the time—to deal with. Chances are the bill won’t pass this time of around. However, “It will be back in some form,” Gieringer says. “It takes a few legislatures to pass legislation this big and we’re not quite there yet.”
But no worries. Impatient Californians rarely wait for the legislature to codify their desires. Be it banning gay marriage (or vice versa), restricting taxation or protecting the environment, the treasured ballot initiative provides a way to circumvent Sacramento’s convoluted lawmaking process. As of press time, four ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana had been approved by the state attorney general’s office for signature-gathering in order to qualify for the ballot: The Tax, Regulate and Control Cannabis Act of 2010; the Common Sense Act of 2010; the Jack Herer Cannabis Hemp Initiative, and the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010.
Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), addresses a recent Assembly committee hearing about a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana. (HECTOR AMEZCUA)
The latter, sponsored by activist Richard Lee, is believed to hold the most promise of reaching the ballot and passing. The initiative needs the signatures of 433,971 California voters by Feb. 18 in order to qualify for the ballot. Reportedly, the initiative has already secured more than 300,000 signatures.
The Lee initiative allows people 21 years old or older to possess, cultivate and transport marijuana for personal use, and permits local governments to regulate and tax commercial production and sale of marijuana. The initiative prohibits people from possessing marijuana on school grounds, using it in public, smoking it while minors are present or providing it to anyone under 21 years old, and it maintains current prohibitions against driving while impaired.
Gieringer disagrees with some of the language in the Lee initiative, such as leaving regulation and taxation of marijuana up to county and city governments, potentially resulting in a patchwork of laws confusing to citizens and law enforcement officers. And he’s skeptical that the initiative will pass muster with more than 50 percent of the voters who actually show up at their polling place and cast a ballot. Nevertheless, he says, NORML will support any of the legalization initiatives that reach the ballot. “We’ll support the initiatives,” he says. “What’s important is that we’re finally seeing strong support for legalization.”
Budding Political Will
Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it. That’s has been the mantra of legalization proponents ever since the Controlled Substance Act banned marijuana cultivation, sales and use in all 50 states. The 1970 law designates marijuana as a Schedule I drug that has “no currently accepted medical use.” In its wake, a highly organized legalization movement has pushed for legalization on the local, state and national levels.
Studies vary wildly on the health, safety and social consequences (and benefits) of marijuana use, and discussing them all would burn up every page of this newspaper. Bottom line, legalization advocates argue, that smoking marijuana is far less dangerous to the smoker and society than two substances readily available at the corner convenience store: alcohol and nicotine. The fact that they’re legal and pot is not is a source of endless frustration for pot smokers.
“Legalize it!” says one Santa Cruz pot smoker. “If people can smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, take pain pills, then why not?”
A proposed bill would impose a $50-an-ounce levy on sales of marijuana, which would boost state revenues by about $1.3 billion a year, according to an analysis by the State Board of Equalization.
The legalization movement has cultivated moderate success in decriminalizing and lowering penalties for marijuana offenses. In California, which first outlawed marijuana in 1913, people busted solely for possession of small amounts of pot for personal use are no longer incarcerated. Possession of an ounce or less constitutes a misdemeanor and carries a fine of $100. Possession of more than an ounce can result in a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Sales, intent to sell and cultivation carry heftier penalties.
Proponents also count the passage of 14 state laws legalizing marijuana for medical use, such as California’s successful 1996 Prop. 215, as further success. Marijuana is commonly used as an appetite stimulant and to treat glaucoma, pain and nausea (although some doctors prescribe it for a much wider array of ailments).
But as far as legalization for recreational use, marijuana advocates have had little luck in being taken seriously. However, a series of recent events have stoked their hopes.
One was a legal decision last year, spaawned from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) 2002 raid of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a Santa Cruz County medical marijuana non-profit collective. WAMM was considered a model medical marijuana establishment. Sanctioned by local and state law enforcement and run by volunteers, WAMM grew pot on a farm near Davenport and distributed it for free to seriously ill patients with a prescription.
The federal government, however, maintains the power to arrest and prosecute marijuana growers, sellers and users under the Controlled Substances Act. In the raid, DEA agents seized 167 plants and arrested WAMM directors Mike and Valerie Corral, but charges were never filed against them. They sued the feds over the raid. In August 2008, the federal court in San Jose ruled that the federal government may not deliberately subvert state law.
And, in May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by San Diego and San Bernardino counties challenging the validity of California’s medical marijuana law. The high court’s refusal left intact a state appeals court decision that upheld the California medical marijuana law. The state court had declared that federal drug law does not render Prop. 215 void.
Both court victories gave legalization advocates hope that the courts would similarly daecline to interfere with state laws that may someday legalize marijuana. President Barack Obama bolstered that hope last month when he told federal authorities not to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers who aren’t violating local laws.
“If only California legalizes it, marijuana remains a valuable commodity in surrounding states. You’d have one big grow in California and 49 other states trying to get to it. That could be one of the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana.”—Bob Lee, Santa Cruz County DA
Then, in June, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts introduced a bill that would eliminate federal penalties for personal possession of less than 100 grams (about three and a half ounces) of marijuana and make the penalty for using marijuana in public just $100. While the bill may not enjoy widespread support on Capitol Hill, the bill and its high-profile sponsor have nevertheless placed legalization in the public eye.
But it’s California’s financial crisis that has provided the biggest boost for the legalization movement. Facing a budget deficit of $20 billion, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s most recent estimate, taxing California’s estimated $3 to $5 billion marijuana industry has begun to look pretty attractive. In May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters that “I think it’s time for debate” on the subject of legalizing and taxing marijuana.
Under Ammiano’s proposed bill, the state would impose a $50-an-ounce levy on sales of marijuana, which would boost state revenues by about $1.3 billion a year, according to an analysis by the State Board of Equalization.
Gieringer’s estimate is more ambitious. He told the Assembly committee that taxing marijuana could realistically reap over $1.5 to $2.5 billion in annual tax revenues. Legalization, he said, could also trigger $8 to $13 billion in adjacent economic activity and a new tax stream from cannabis-related tourism, paraphernalia sales and industrial hemp cultivation.
[Last month] President Obama told federal authorities not to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers who aren’t violating local laws.
Moreover, he said, legalization could save the state $200 million annually in law enforcement costs to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate marijuana offenders. In 2008, 75,701 people were arrested in California on marijuana charges. The state currently incarcerates 1,500 people for marijuana charges. California inmates cost $47,000 a year each to keep behind bars.
State Assemblyman Bill Monning finds the economic argument for AB 390 compelling. “I’m open-minded about it,” he says. “Our prison budget and law enforcement budget are stressed to the max.”
But while he recognizes that legalization and taxation of marijuana could potentially offer a huge source of revenue for the state, he’s cautious to wholly endorse legalization without more public discussion.
The treasured ballot initiative provides a way to circumvent Sacramento’s convoluted lawmaking process. As of press time, four ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana had been approved by the state attorney general’s office for signature-gathering in order to qualify for the ballot.
“It’s one reason to move forward with it, but I don’t think it should be the only reason,” he says, citing the social and law enforcement implications of legalization, which leads to the over-riding question with which legislators and voters will have to grapple: Is legalizing marijuana the right thing to do?
Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee’s office doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort prosecuting non-violent marijuana offenders. Of 34 attorneys in the DA’s office, only one is assigned to drug cases. In 2008, the county prosecuted 527 misdemeanor and 132 felony marijuana cases.
“Violent crime is our priority,” Lee says. What worries him is the violence associated with marijuana cultivation.
At the going street rate of $60 for an eighth-ounce bag of high-quality bud (which lasts a heavy smoker just a few days), marijuana is a valuable commodity and violence often follows it. At least three people have died trying to steal pot plants in Humboldt County over the past year, according to the Eureka Times-Standard. More recently, gun-wielding Mexican drug cartels have begun growing on public lands in Southern California to escape widespread drug-related violence back home. And a 2009 California Police Chiefs Association study reports increased organized crime and gang activity across the state since the 1996 medical marijuana law due to criminals who cultivate and sell pot under the guise of medical dispensaries.
… marijuana is a valuable commodity, violence often follows it. At least three people have died trying to steal pot plants … More recently, gun-wielding Mexican drug cartels have begun growing on public lands in Southern California to escape widespread drug-related violence back home.
Santa Cruz County is not immune to the violence. On Halloween morning 1978, Norman Jay Dillon, then 17, led a group of eight high school boys on a mission to rip off marijuana plants growing on a quarter-acre plot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Dillon carried with him a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle, and some of the other boys were armed with shotguns. One of the growers, Dennis Johnson, was alerted to the ambush because one of the boys had accidentally discharged his gun. Carrying a shotgun, he snuck up behind the boys. Dillon saw Johnson approaching through the bushes and unloaded nine bullets into his body. Johnson died a few days later, and Dillon was subsequently convicted of first-degree felony murder and attempted robbery.
By legalizing marijuana and allowing smokers to grow their own in their backyards or bedroom closets, proponents argue that the price of pot would drop and it would lose its appeal for drug cartels, gangs and organized crime. Then, the violence associated with marijuana would evaporate.
“Profit margins for growers would be drastically cut by elimination of [marijuana] prohibition,” Dale Gieringer of NORML testified before the state Assembly committee. “In a totally unregulated market, the price of marijuana would presumably drop as low as that of other legal herbs such as tea or tobacco—on the order of a few dollars per ounce.”
But Lee disagrees. If only California legalizes it, marijuana remains a valuable commodity in surrounding states, he argues. “You’d have one big grow in California and 49 other states trying to get to it,” Lee says, possibly spurring, not subduing, criminal activity. “That could be one of the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana.”
Sorry to be a Buzz Kill …
… but Californians may still have a few years to ponder the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana. Social change happens slowly, and Gieringer isn’t convinced that the California public is ready for legalization.
Public opinion polls vary but more or less hover around a 50-50 split on the subject of legalization. Those polls need to be closer to 60 percent in favor to translate to a win at the polls, Gieringer says, because older, more conservative voters tend to actually show up on Election Day. Meanwhile, the state legislature is unlikely to pass the Ammiano bill this session or next, he says.
“Legalization is not a simple thing,” he says. “It takes a few years of discussion by society to come up with a law that everyone’s comfortable with. I’m very optimistic looking over the next 10 years, but not necessarily this year.”
Assemblyman Bill Monning agrees that legalization’s time has not come quite yet. However, “The proposed law and initiatives are vehicles to provoke public discourse,” he says. And that’s what Californians need more of, he says, before legalization can (if ever) be achieved.
What might be a better first step, he says, is to decriminalize marijuana instead of outright legalizing it. That could be achieved by passing laws ordering police to make marijuana a low priority. In 1979, the city of Berkeley became the first California city to officially decriminalize pot. Santa Cruz voters followed in 2006 with the passage of Measure K. A proposed initiative to decriminalize marijuana on statewide level failed to reach the ballot in 2008.
However, Monning says, legalization in California won’t mean much as long as marijuana remains illegal according to U.S. law. As of now, the feds retain the right to trump state law.
“Change will have to be endorsed at the federal level,” he says. “Hopefully, California’s efforts will help advance the national discussion.”
Chronic-illogical California Marijuana Factoids
• California outlawed marijuana in 1913. The state partially decriminalized it in 1976, ending jail terms for people busted for possession of 28.5 grams (about an ounce) or less.
• Three million Californians used marijuana last year and 15 million have done so in their lifetime. Just over 10 percent of marijuana users in California use for medical purposes.
• Since 1976, 1.85 million marijuana-related arrests have been made in the state. Half a million of those were felonies.
• California’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) seized 2.9 million pot plants in 2007-08, the most ever in the agency’s 25 year history. The plants had an estimated street value of $11.6 billion.**
• Seventy-two percent of the plants seized by CAMP in 2007-08 were growing on public land (national forests, state wilderness areas, etc.).** The growers are believed to be mostly Mexican nationals working for drug cartels back home.
• Under a proposed state law, taxing marijuana could reap $1.3 billion in tax revenue annually.*
• The state of California spends about $200 million a year to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate marijuana offenders.
About 1,500 current state prison inmates were convicted solely on marijuana charges, more than 15 times as many as in 1980.
• Despite law enforcement efforts, pot continues to be readily available across the state.
• Bottom line, say marijuana advocates, is that the state’s eradication efforts aren’t working. “The record is clear: Marijuana is here to stay, and the law can’t put a stop to it,” said Dale Gieringer, California state coordinator of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), in a 2008 press release. “Taxpayers would be better off to legalize and tax marijuana than to continue wasting money arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning traffickers in an unwinnable, unending war.”
Sources: NORML.org, *California State Board of Equalization, **California Division of Law Enforcement Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2007-08.