Now on the ballot, could marijuana legalization happen in California?

Marijuana advocacy groups heralded Wednesday's news, but the path to marijuana legalization could be difficult, say opponents and legal experts.

By , Staff writer

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    Marijuana legalization? A voter initiative will be on the November 2 California state ballot on whether to legalize possession and growth of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.
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An initiative to control and tax marijuana qualified Wednesday for the November 2 state ballot, and could make California the first state to legalize cannabis.

Proponents of marijuana legalization are celebrating the announcement as a victory in a decades-long struggle to end marijuana prohibition, and seem convinced of the measure's passage. Opponents are lamenting the demise of social standards and airing concerns about a rise in crime, and promise a fight.

The measure, certified Wednesday by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, would:

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  • Allow people age 21 years or older to possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.
  • Permit local governments to regulate and tax commercial production and sale of marijuana to people 21 years old or older.
  • Prohibit 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.
  • Maintain current prohibitions against driving while impaired.

“This is a watershed moment,” wrote Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which spearheaded the initiative.

"Banning marijuana outright has been a disaster, fueling a massive, increasingly brutal underground economy, wasting billions in scarce law enforcement resources, and making criminals out of countless law-abiding citizens," he said.

Proponents say the initiative will pass and that it will cause a ripple effect.

“California is often a leader in these types of bold policy changes,” says Aaron Smith, California Policy Director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This will have an effect across the Western US first and then the Eastern states just like we saw with the passage of medical marijuana 13 years ago. I think we are at a tipping point and this will happen even faster.”

Legal scholars say the initiative could run into trouble. Robert Langran, a constitutional scholar at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., says the US Supreme Court has held that the federal Controlled Substances Act trumps any state law legalizing marijuana.

“However, the feds have pretty much looked the other way for states allowing marijuana for medical use,” says Langran. "What it will do if California legalizes recreational use marijuana is anybody’s guess, but my hunch is it might crack down on it, at least in the beginning,” he says.

Both those for and those against passage of the measure use polls to support their positions.

A recent study by the California Police Chiefs Association showed that crime has increased in several categories since the state began allowing marijuana for medical use in 1996. And other groups warn of other problems.

But some 56 percent of Californians surveyed in an April, 2009 Field Poll say they favored making marijuana legal for social use and taxing the sales proceeds. And in October, Gallup found 44 percent of Americans favored legalization.

Mr. Smith says the measure has many things going for it, including the down economy.

“In California, this is a $14 billon industry that is going completely untaxed. This will create tens of thousands of jobs and bring in over $1 billon in annual revenue. That is hard to ignore."

Opponents of the measure say the societal drawbacks outweigh the financial benefits.

“Budget holes don’t justify legalizing pot,” says Steve Steiner, founder of Dads and Moms Against Drug Dealers. “Taxing our youth to balance the budget doesn’t make sense,” says Mr. Steiner, whose son died of a drug overdose. He notes that the legalization of medical marijuana in California hasn’t been such a success, with many cities now clamping down on the proliferation of dispensaries after complaints from residents and schools nearby.

Proponents like Smith, however, argue that social mores have changed. He points to last year's Michael Phelps episode in which a photo of the Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer was widely distributed on the Internet.

“His sponsors reacted negatively, but the public was outraged by the furor over it,” says Smith. “They were saying, ‘hey, this is no big deal … a guy in his early 20s smoking at a party ... so what? Half of the people in that demographic do it.’ ”

Smith also points to the high cost of policing and incarcerating marijuana users at the expense of other areas of public safety.

“We are spending a fortune in our efforts to police consensual adult behavior while there are other important issues of public safety that need to be addressed,” he says.

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