A significant step was made last week in the fight to legalize marijuana in California, when the Assembly Public Safety Committee passed State Rep. Tom Ammiano’s bill to legalize and regulate pot usage. Although the bill is technically dead because it did not meet the deadline for approval by another committee, many say history is in the making.
“This is the first time a bill of this kind was heard and passed in a committee,” said Quintin Mecke, communications director for State Rep. Ammiano. “We’ve made quite a bit of progress with this issue.”
Although Ammiano can reintroduce another version of his bill after Jan. 23, it is likely that attention will shift to the “Tax Cannabis 2010” initiative planned for the November ballot. If passed, adults over 21 will be able to posses up to one ounce of marijuana and to cultivate a small amount for themselves. Cities and counties would individually decide whether or not to tax the drug.
One main argument for legalizing marijuana is that it could provide a much-needed boost to California’s economy. The California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that a legally regulated market for marijuana could yield the state at least $1.2 billion in tax revenues and reduced enforcement costs.
“It doesn’t make sense for California to be paying money to arrest and imprison people when they could be making money by taxing marijuana,” said Dale Geiringer, state coordinator of California NORML.
Many groups oppose the legalization of marijuana for health and safety reasons, however. The International Faith-Based Coalition led a rally last Tuesday at the capitol protesting the passage of Ammiano’s bill.
“Like tobacco and alcohol, there’s no real way to regulate marijuana usage,” said Taknesha Allen, UC Davis student and youth representative for the International Faith-Based Coalition. “We only make about $19 million on alcohol in California, versus 34 million on law enforcement and rehab. We’re not breaking even.”
The International Faith-Based Coalition plans to continue to fight marijuana legalization by educating people with open rallies, public speeches and debates.
“I don’t think that in our desperate times we should become drug dealers,” Allen said. “We shouldn’t legalize stupidity at the risk of everyone’s lives.”
The question of the carcinogenic effects of marijuana is also a topic of debate. Marijuana smoke has been added to California’s list of known carcinogens, but advocates for legalization insist that it is safer than tobacco or alcohol.
“There are so many deaths each year attributed to tobacco and alcohol,” Mecke said. “There have been zero deaths ever attributed solely to the use of marijuana.”
Pot usage is already widespread in California, despite it being illegal. According to the U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services 2007 survey of drug use, 1.95 million Californians admitted to having used marijuana in the past month.
“We need to face the reality of the situation,” Mecke said. “People across all age groups are smoking marijuana. It’s not just teenagers.”
Backing the initiative is Oaksterdam University, an Oakland-based organization that trains people for careers in the cannabis industry.
“We are about 95 percent sure that the initiative will be on the November ballot,” said Salwa Ibrahim, spokesperson for Oaksterdam University. “We’ve collected enough signatures – it just needs to be officially approved.”
Ibrahim believes the initiative has a good chance of passing, since poll numbers are increasing in favor of legalization.
“The public perception is changing,” she said. “Marijuana is becoming more normalized with shows like ‘Weeds,’ for example.”
Ultimately, voters will decide in November’s election whether or not marijuana should be legalized.
SARAH HANSEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.