Pubdate: Sun, 12 Apr 2009
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A1
Copyright: 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Marijuana has been a part of the American cultural landscape for 
nearly a century, tried by millions - including, apparently, the last 
three presidents and the current California governor.

So why has it taken so long to arrive at a political moment of truth 
- - a full national debate about the legalization, taxation and 
regulation of cannabis?

Experts say an unprecedented confluence of factors might finally be 
driving a change on a topic once seen as politically too hot to handle.

Among them: the recession-fueled need for more public revenue, 
increased calls to redirect scarce law enforcement, court and prison 
resources, and a growing desire to declaw powerful and violent 
Mexican drug cartels. Also in the mix is a public opinion shift 
driven by a generation of Baby Boomers, combined with some new 
high-profile calls for legislation - including some well-known 
conservative voices joining with liberals.

Leading conservatives like former Secretary of State George Shultz 
and the late economist Milton Friedman years ago called for 
legalization and a change in the strategy in the war on drugs. This 
year mainstream pundits like Fox News' Glenn Beck and CNN's Jack 
Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year 
fighting the endless war against drugs and to suggest it now makes 
more financial and social sense to tax and regulate marijuana.

"It's a combination of all these things coming together at once and 
producing that 'aha' moment," said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the 
Marijuana Policy Project, who for years has monitored the wavering 
political winds on the subject. He says so much has changed in recent 
months that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, it looks possible."

"If you'd asked me 10 years ago - or three years ago - I would have 
said it will be a long, slow slog," he said. "And now, it looks like 
it might happen faster than any of us believed."

President Obama recently took a prime-time news conference question 
on marijuana legalization - and laughingly sidestepped the question. 
But among the very serious items driving the public debate is 
California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to tax and regulate the 
drug - an idea that polls suggest is no longer out of the mainstream.

The findings of a February Rasmussen poll showed 40 percent of 
Americans support legalizing the drug, with 46 percent opposed and 14 
percent unsure. 54% in state favor legalization

A new California poll by Oakland EMC Research specifically tracked 
state voters' attitudes on marijuana use, taxation and legalization.

Alex Evans, president and founder of EMC, said his firm has done the 
same study for years for Oaksterdam University, an Oakland medical 
marijuana dispensary and education group, but 2009 marks the first 
time the poll showed that a clear majority of state voters, 54 
percent, say the drug should be legalized, compared with 39 percent 
opposed. (The poll of 551 likely voters was taken March 16-21 and has 
a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.)

"Part of the explanation is people's good feelings about medical 
marijuana," he said. "It's demonstrated that it can work. People are 
growing in confidence that we can continue to make it more legal."

The shift appears to be driven by aging Baby Boomers' "own personal 
experience with cannabis," he said, especially their growing belief 
that "there's not much difference between that and alcohol ... it is 
leading them to support more of a tax-and-regulate attitude." Some 
see pot as gateway drug

Opponents of legalization have long expressed concerns, saying that 
making marijuana legal will compound substance abuse problems, that 
it is a gateway drug that leads to use of harder drugs and that 
legalization would send the wrong message to children.

But Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, who supports 
Ammiano's effort, says that in a state racked by a $42 billion 
deficit - where marijuana is also now ranked as the largest cash crop 
- - it is "completely reasonable and sensible" to take another look.

"To continue to outlaw it and not tax it is really to keep one's head 
in the sand, as if we can pretend and it will go away," he said. 
"Minimally, I'm hoping we take a look at the billions of dollars 
we've spent on the war on drugs: Have we gotten our money's worth?"

Already, some localities are exploring that issue - and whether they 
can get their money's worth from rethinking cannabis legislation. 
Marijuana as industry

Voters in Oakland, a city crippled by a $65 million deficit, could 
soon decide whether to approve a hike in the business tax of as much 
as 10 times the current rate for medical marijuana dispensaries, an 
idea advanced by City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

She co-authored the voter-approved Measure Z, which makes cannabis 
the lowest law enforcement priority in the city and mandates that 
Oakland tax and regulate the drug as soon as possible under state law.

Richard Lee, the director of Oaksterdam University, said the keen 
interest in possible new revenue from cannabis sales was underscored 
when he was recently asked to testify to Oakland officials on the 
matter "in front of the finance committee ... not health and safety."

Lee said his own thriving multi-faceted enterprise, a national 
spearhead in what is increasingly being called the "cannabis 
industry," dramatizes exactly the potential for those revenues.

Oaksterdam operates four medical marijuana dispensaries and a score 
of busy related downtown businesses - including an Amsterdam-style 
coffee shop, an educational facility offering popular 13-week 
marijuana cultivation courses, a bike rental shop, a gift shop, a 
glass blowing facility for making pipes, a marijuana nursery and a 
media company that produces publications like West Coast Cannabis 
magazine. Business is booming. 'We have to prove ourselves'

Still, politicians on both sides of the aisle have been wary of 
aligning themselves with marijuana advocates, and "we have to prove 
ourselves," Lee said .

But it appears the movement's advocates have learned some political 
lessons since the '70s, when the Woodstock generation thrived.

In the 21st century, Lee said, the message of the marijuana movement 
is "about less government ... and more jobs, taxes and tourism."

Marijuana use - facts and figures

Some of the studies and statistics being cited in the discussion on 
taxing and regulating marijuana:

- -- A recent World Health Organization study found that 42.4 percent 
of Americans have tried marijuana. That is the highest percentage of 
any country surveyed and compares to a 20 percent rate in the 
Netherlands, where the drug is legal.

- -- A National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggested California may 
be producing a whopping 38 percent of the marijuana grown in the 
United States. The study suggests there are an estimated 3.3 million 
cannabis users here, representing about 13 percent of the nation's 
marijuana users.

- -- California's state-funded Campaign Against Marijuana Planting 
seized nearly 1.7 million plants in 2006 with an estimated street 
value of more than $6.7 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. 
Studies have ranked the state as the national leader in both outdoor 
and indoor marijuana production, with an estimated 4.2 million indoor 
plants valued at nearly $1.5 billion, the paper reported.

- -- National statistics show 872,000 arrests last year related to 
marijuana, 775,000 of them for possession, not sale or manufacturing 
- - sparking some critics to suggest that the resources of the criminal 
justice system, including the crowded state prisons and courts, might 
be better used elsewhere.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom