Illustration by Justin Martinez.
Illustration by Justin Martinez.

When California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano first introduced Assembly Bill 390 — the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act — to legalize sale and personal use of cannabis in California, it was widely seen as a bombshell. However, AB 390’s promise to feed over $1 billion into California’s starving economy has gained surprising momentum, fueled by the recession and a need for more public revenue. 


By applying a tax of $50 to every ounce of cannabis sold, Ammiano said, AB 390 would boost state funds and improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts and resources toward more serious crimes. The bill seeks to strip away penalties for cultivation, distribution and possession of cannabis for adults 21 and over. 

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a California-based group, is co-sponsoring AB 390 and the medical marijuana initiative.

“Amianno is really the first person to propose a legalization bill since marijuana was made illegal in California in 1913,” said Dale Gieringer, vice chair of NORML. “This has generated a tremendous amount of publicity and the reaction has brought a lot of people out of the closet.”

While opponents of the legislation are concerned that making marijuana legal will compound substance abuse problems and send the wrong message to children about marijuana use, liberals and conservatives alike are fed up with the war on drugs. 

The sudden thrust of marijuana into the political spotlight has sparked a national debate that many feel is long overdue. Even mainstream pundits like CNN’s Jack Cafferty and Fox News’s Glen Beck have publicly questioned the billions spent each year on the drug war and have suggested that it makes economic and social sense to begin taxing and regulating marijuana.

Bruce Mirken, who as spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has monitored the wavering political tide of the issue, said in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, “For the first time in my adult life, it looks possible.”


The Booming Marijuana Market


Marijuana is California’s top cash crop, according to federal government statistics. Valued at about $14 billion in 2006, marijuana annually garners nearly twice the combined value of vegetables ($5.7 billion) and grapes ($2.6 billion) — the state’s No. 2 and 3 crops. 

According to Board of Equalization estimates, marijuana could bring in about $1.3 billion a year in taxes and fees if AB 390 is passed. 

“It is simply nonsensical that California’s largest agricultural industry is completely unregulated and untaxed,” said Aaron Smith, policy director for the California division of the MPP, in a statement accompanying Ammiano’s announcement of the bill on Feb. 21. “With our state in an ongoing fiscal crisis — and no one believes the new budget is the end of California’s financial woes — it’s time to bring this major piece of our economy into the light of day.”

Studies have ranked the state as the national leader in both outdoor and indoor marijuana production, with the estimate of indoor plants currently in California at about 4.2 million. 

College students across the state are pushing for marijuana legalization as well. The international grassroots organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has been lobbying state congress in Sacramento for the passage of AB 390.

“We’re not talking about whether marijuana is good or bad. We’re talking about whether marijuana prohibition has been successful or not,” said Jonathan Perri, outreach director of SSDP in the western region. “We feel that there’s overwhelming evidence that it has been not just unsuccessful, but counterproductive.”


Everybody Does It?


The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a yearly study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggests the Golden State might be producing 38 percent of the marijuana grown in the United States. The study also suggests that there are an estimated 3.3 million cannabis users in California, about 13 percent of the total usership in the nation. 

Additionally, government surveys show that 100 million Americans have smoked pot or its resin in their lifetimes, while 25 million have partaken in the past year. A recent World Health Organization study found that 42.4 percent of Americans have tried marijuana — the highest percentage of any country surveyed. In the Netherlands, where the drug is legal, that rate is only 20 percent. 

Nonetheless, polls have generally shown that the national public is wary when it comes to legalization. The findings of a February Rasmussen poll showed that 40 percent of Americans support legalization, with 46 percent opposed and 14 percent unsure. 

A California-specific poll performed in March 2009 by Oakland’s EMC Research specifically tracked the state voters’ attitudes on cannabis use, taxation and legalization and found that for the first time, a clear majority at 54 percent of state voters are in favor of legalization. 

“The consensus is that marijuana is relatively benign when you talk about all these other drugs,” said fourth-year Brian Wallace, president of SSDP’s UC Santa Cruz chapter. “It’s kind of ridiculous that we’re spending all this money on it … on jailing people, and putting people through the legal system. We have this budget crisis on top of all that. With those two things together I think we stand a good chance about the passing eventually.”


Imprisoned For Pot


National statistics show that there were 872,000 marijuana-related arrests last year. 775,000 of them were for possession, not sale or manufacturing. In 2007 there were almost 75,000 marijuana-related arrests in California alone, with the numbers steadily increasing. Incarceration in California costs $43,000 per inmate yearly.

“If we can reduce the amount of money we’re spending on state prisons and invest it in education,” said State Assemblyman Bill Monning, who represents Santa Cruz County, “we would reduce the need for people to go through criminal activity.” 

Long prison sentences for drug involvement have contributed to an overcrowded prison population, which is overwhelming the state budget. Drug penalties for possession with intent to distribute rival penalties for crimes that involve more risk to personal safety — and unlike alcohol use, marijuana use has not been associated with violent crime.

“There’s a growing movement in this country to start exploring decriminalization, which doesn’t necessarily condone use as legalization would, but you take it out of the black market, you take it out of the hands of criminals, you regulate it, and you tax it — there’s models for that in the United Kingdom,” Monning said. 

Gieringer said that these penalties have done nothing to suppress users, and only perpetuate incidences of criminal acitivity.  

“It’s a crime creation, and we don’t think it makes sense for taxpayers to have to pay for crime creation,” Gieringer said. 


Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire


Critics of the bill argue that marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead to more potent drugs like heroin. Even nonsmokers would be affected, they say, since widespread use would increase the dangers of second-hand smoke. 

“We see no social good coming from this bill,” said John Lovell, of the California Peace Officers Association, an organization representing more than 3,000 members from municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that lobbies against AB 390. “The penalty for selling marijuana to children drops from a felony to a $200 fine. The penalty for illegally growing marijuana drops from a felony to a $200 fine. All that’s going to do is encourage the illegal market.”

“Right now two-thirds of violent crime is what we call alcohol-involved,” Lovell continued. “Do we really want to add yet another mind-altering substance to that legal array? Where you’ve got people high on marijuana engaged in high-risk activity, where’s the social good there?”

Lovell is also weary that the actual revenue from legalization would be much lower than expected. 

“The bill will not raise the money that the sponsors say it will. The street price will always be cheaper than the so-called legal price, so people will buy the street price,” Lovell said. “And there’s no reason not to, because there’s no penalty for possession of marijuana, so it doesn’t matter if I’m in possession of lawful marijuana or street marijuana — there’s no penalties.”

Health officials are worried that legalization might cause the public to overlook its harmful side effects. Paul Willis, an alcohol and drug educator at Student Health Outreach and Promotion (SHOP), sees students self-medicating with marijuana all the time and hopes that there will be more effort on making policies clearer. 

“The whole movement around medical marijuana has gotten caught up in the legalization battle. I’ve probably seen three students in the last six months who claimed a need for medical marijuana, but then admitted to me that they sought it out not based on medical conditions, but for access to marijuana,” Willis said. “There are still people in the legalization movement that say this is a harmless herb, but it’s not. It has definite physiological effects.” 


High Times They Are A-Changing


California currently collects $18 million in sales taxes from medical marijuana dispensaries. 

Thirteen states have legalized medical marijuana — a trend advocates credit partly to more openness around alternative healing. Though classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the 1970 Narcotics Act, doctors have found marijuana effective in reducing nausea, easing glaucoma and improving appetite in AIDS and cancer patients. 

Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, was passed in 1996 and allows patients with certain medical conditions to use marijuana. Senate Bill 420, added in 2004 to complement Proposition 215, provides guidelines for medical marijuana use. Namely, it allows marijuana to be dispensed for “any illness for which marijuana provides relief.” 

Currently, California has more than 200,000 physician-sanctioned users and hundreds of dispensaries. 

Leona Powell has been a member of The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) since 1998. A nonprofit organization based in Santa Cruz that offers medical marijuana on a donation basis, Powell got involved in WAMM after becoming sick and has been advocating for marijuana ever since.  

“It’s more than just smoking a joint,” Powell said. “Seeing people get relief on their deathbed makes me feel good. I’m really glad we have marijuana for the people who are sick and need it. It’s not a dangerous drug.”

Travis*, another WAMM member, agreed and believes that the potential passage of AB 390 looks promising. 

“I don’t think there should be any limitations on the drug, as long as you’re an adult,” Travis said. “Decriminalizing it will give relief to prisons. It would save a lot of money and save a lot of problems.” 

*Denotes name change.