Pot pioneers

Legislature dopes out marijuana bill as legalization petition gets passed around


Two serious bids to legalize marijuana in California are moving forward simultaneously. And while decisions won't be made for months, both efforts have generated interest from around the world.

"We're on the cover of Newsweek right now. We were on the cover of Fortune magazine a few weeks ago," said Salwa Ibrahim, a spokesperson for Oaksterdam University, based in downtown Oakland. "We've gotten attention from every continent on the planet — well, except Antarctica, I suppose."

Founded in 2007, Oaksterdam — a.k.a. "Cannabis College" — is a training school for the medical marijuana industry. It's grown steadily since its inception, and expects to double its student body next year. OU is the driver behind a ballot initiative currently in circulation that would give counties the option to tax and regulate marijuana, permitting individuals to cultivate up to 25 square feet for personal consumption. Like alcohol, it would only be accessible to people 21 and older.

So far the campaign has collected 40 percent of the signatures needed to put the question to voters on the November 2010 ballot, and proponent Richard Lee, cofounder of OU, is confident that they'll hit the threshold by Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Quintin Mecke, spokesperson for Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, has been fielding phone calls from journalists from around the world. Ammiano made headlines in February when he introduced Assembly Bill 390, legislation to legalize and tax marijuana statewide, reguutf8g it the same way as alcohol.

Ammiano's proposal was presented at an informational hearing in Sacramento on Oct. 28, and could be formally considered by early January 2010.

"We're really not pushing anything that's not already socially accepted," Mecke said. According to a Field Poll released in April, 56 percent of Californians support legalization, a record high. Although consumption of marijuana peaked in the 1970s, polls at the time showed that public support for legalization never rose higher than around 25 percent.

Both Ammiano and Lee closely monitored public opinion before spearheading their efforts, and recognized a shift in the wind as public sentiment warmed and the Obama administration proved far more tolerant of state medical marijuana laws than its predecessor.

Proponents say the bitter economic climate is one reason the idea of legalization is getting more play than ever. Already the state's largest cash crop, legalized marijuana carries a revenue potential of as much as $1.4 billion annually, a boon for California's flagging economy, according to the Board of Equalization.

In Oakland, OU and its affiliated medical marijuana dispensaries seem to be flouting the economic trends of the day as a business that is gaining momentum rather than cutting corners. Lee says his ultimate goal is to place Oakland on the map as a West Coast version of Amsterdam.

Four dispensaries operating in downtown Oakland have already sparked a boost in tourism, creating an international buzz that draws visitors from afar. "One of Oakland's big problems is something they call 'leakage' on the retail," Lee said. "And that is that Oakland residents don't shop in Oakland. With cannabis ... we have 60 percent from outside. We have 'floodage' instead of 'leakage.'"

With the state facing an unprecedented budget shortfall, the revenue potential "happens to be the icing on the cake," Mecke said. He said Ammiano's primary reason for introducing the legislation is that "the prohibition model has failed." Studies have found the drug to be safer than alcohol (there are no documented deaths associated with an overdose of marijuana consumption, and it's been proven to have medicinal value), Mecke points out.