Chronic debate

THE DRUG ISSUE: Marijuana decriminalization moves forward on several fronts

For decades, proponents of marijuana reform have argued that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, has legitimate medical uses, and should be decriminalized on the grounds that prohibition doesn't work.

In 1996, these arguments helped convince California voters to approve Proposition 215, which allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes. And in March, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signaled a major change in federal drug policy when he said that the Justice Department does not plan to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries that operate legally under California law.

But the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance that has no medical value and a high abuse potential. As a result, cultivation, distribution, and sales of pot primarily occur on the black market, a shadowy mix of small-timers and powerful cartels.

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) suggests that U.S. growers produced 22 million pounds of marijuana in 2006, worth $35.8 billion, and that California accounted for almost 39 percent of U.S. pot production.

Now, with California's economy in the crapper, the state budget a mess, and federal judges ordering substantial reductions in California's prison population, reform advocates are making an intriguing argument: if state or local governments legalize and tax even a fraction of marijuana sales in California, the state could see billions of dollars in new annual revenue and reduced enforcement costs.

Assembly Member Tom Ammiano recalls some laughter in February when he introduced Assembly Bill 390, state legislation to regulate marijuana much like alcohol. "But the budget fiasco has made some people who were dismissive take a harder look," Ammiano said.

A recent California Board of Equalization analysis of Ammiano's bill estimates that if the state charged $50 per ounce, California would generate $1.4 billion in marijuana taxes annually.

Voters in Oakland also advanced the marijuana policy discussion last month when they approved a special tax on the city's medical cannabis dispensaries. And in August, a three-judge federal court ruled that California must develop a plan to reduce its prison population by 44,000 over two years.

The public also seems to support making a change. In April, a Field Poll confirmed that for the first time a majority (56 percent) of California voters support legalizing pot.

Depite these advances, Ammiano says he wants to be strategic with his bill, gradually building support. "That's why we made it a two-year bill," Ammiano said. His bill is scheduled for its first hearing at the Public Safety Committee, which Ammiano now chairs, by year's end.

But some Bay Area activists aren't waiting on Ammiano. Last month, Richard Lee, who operates four medical marijuana dispensaries in Oakland, filed initiative paperwork with the state and hopes to gather enough signatures to qualify a Tax Cannabis initiative in 2010.

Ammiano's bill and Lee's initiative allow recreational use of marijuana, penalize driving under the influence, and charge a $50 fee per ounce. But they differ around regulation and how to deal with the overarching problem of federal law. Ammiano's legislation assumes a statewide system that mirrors the federal Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. Lee's initiative leaves regulation to each county, similar to the patchwork approach to alcohol in other states.

Lee believes his initiative gives people more options. "We can't order people to break federal law — that would be thrown out," Lee said. "Forty jurisdictions already permit medical marijuana cooperatives in California. So we already have that system, and we'll follow that reality."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who authored San Francisco's medical cannabis dispensary regulations, believes it's important to lay the groundwork at the local level.