Meanwhile, marijuana-related arrests are on the rise, and precious public dollars allocated for law enforcement are badly needed to combat other kinds of criminal activity, he says.
"Several tens of millions of dollars" could be saved annually in correctional costs by reducing the number of marijuana-related offenders serving jail sentences, according to a report by the California Legislative Analyst's Office that was presented at the informational hearing. The LAO also found that legalizing marijuana could result in a "major reduction" in state and local law enforcement costs.
Lee's personal story is interlinked with the law-enforcement argument for legalization. In 1991, while living in Texas, he became the victim of a carjacking. "It took the police 45 minutes to respond," he said. "That's what really made me mad. I blamed the lack of police protection on the fact that the police were wasting their time looking for people like me and my friends instead of the real sociopaths and predators out there."
Yet if testimony at the informational hearing was any indication, most of the law-enforcement community doesn't hold the same viewpoint.
"I have seen nothing good come of this," John Standish, president of the California Peace Officers' Association, said. Standish told Ammiano he believes the potential tax revenues would be far outweighed by costs associated with marijuana-related medical treatments, dangers linked with drugged driving, and worker absences.
Others associated with law enforcement expressed concern that the legalization would make it easier for minors to obtain marijuana. Sara Simpson, speaking on behalf of the California Office of the Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, emphasized the rise of armed Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) conducting growing operations on California public lands. "We believe regulation of marijuana will have little effect on illegal DTOs," she noted.
Jim Gray, a retired judge who testified at the hearing, took the opposite view. "The only way you put these Mexican drug cartels out of business is to undercut the price, and AB390 is a really good place to start," he said. "Today our marijuana laws are putting our children in harm's way. It is easier for young people to get marijuana than it is to get alcohol."
The wild card for any move toward legalization, meanwhile, is federal law. The drug remains illegal under federal statutes, so the success of any tax-and-regulate experiment would depend on whether the feds were willing to tolerate legalized recreational use of the controlled substance, as it has for medical purposes. "California could be out of the gate early if in fact there is a change in federal law," Ammiano pointed out at the hearing. At the same time, if legalization is approved and federal law remains unchanged, the state policy could be thrown into question in the future under a change in administration.
"Change doesn't happen unless states take a stand on something," Mecke said. "Given the success with medical marijuana, we don't think it's a stretch to continue the push for recreational use. We think it's reflective of public sentiment and public interest. It's good public policy as well."
Lee, for his part, simply believes that laws prohibiting marijuana are unjust and should be repealed. "I'm really kind of conservative," he said as he sat just yards away from OU's horticulture room, where two students were busy trimming the pungent herb. "Basically I like the police, and the laws, and people who respect them and obey them. But when you make laws that are totally ridiculous and hypocritical and unfair ... we have to get rid of those laws."