California edges toward legalization of pot

The California Assembly's public safety committee approved a bill to legalize pot on Tuesday. A day earlier, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Steve Yeater/AP
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, talks to reporters about the future of his bill to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana use in California after a hearing in front of the Assembly Public Safety Committee at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday.

As part of the continued push to legalize marijuana in California, the state Assembly’s public safety committee approved a bill Tuesday to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. It's the farthest that efforts to legalize marijuana have got in the state.

The committee vote comes just a day after New Jersey’s legislature became the 14tth state to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the law before leaving office next week.

The use of marijuana for medical purposes is already legal in California, but the new bill would remove marijuana and derivatives from existing statutes defining them as controlled substances and make it legal to possess, sell, and cultivate marijuana by those 21 and older. It sets up wholesale and retail sales regulation with special fees to fund drug abuse prevention programs. And it bans local and state assistance “in enforcing inconsistent federal and other laws.”

Reaction to the 4-3 committee vote has been swift and strong on both sides of the issue. Advocates of legalization are overjoyed.

This is the first time a legislative committee in California has approved legalization of marijuana, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), adding, “No one thinks that California is going to end a 100-year long criminal prohibition with one bill in one year.”

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D), who introduced the bill, cited changing public attitudes toward marijuana and the need to plug California’s enormous budget deficit. A tax of about $50 per ounce of marijuana will raise over $1 billion annually, according to a state tax board assessment of the bill.

A KCRA-TV Web-based poll conducted this week shows overwhelming public support for legalization in California, with 84 percent in favor and just 16 percent against the idea.

Still, even Ammiano spokesman Quintin Mecke says the bill has little chance of making it to the Assembly floor for a vote, partly due to legislative constraints. But it appears likely that the issue will be put to the ballot in November in California as well as other states including Washington and Oregon.

Budgetary considerations in tough times may be influencing states and cities to reconsider the issue. California’s perennial budget deficits this year topped a record $60 billion.

Oakland, Calif., became the first city in the US to assess a tax on marijuana last summer.

“The change of administrations in Washington has sent a signal for more accommodation of marijuana smokers and we have a dire, dire budget situation in California,” says Assemblyman Ammiano.

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 near the outlets.

But NORML’s Mr. Armentano argues in a Sacramento Bee oped that taxing and regulating pot is better than banning it, which would “abdicate the control of its production and distribution to criminal entrepreneurs (e.g., drug cartels, street gangs, drug dealers who push additional illegal substances).”


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