Pubdate: Wed, 13 May 2009
Source: Oakland Tribune, The (CA)
Copyright: 2009 ANG Newspapers
Author: John Simerman, Contra Costa Times


OAKLAND -- Here in the East Bay's growing hotbed of marijuana-related 
commerce -- an uptown stretch that some call "Oaksterdam" -- the buzz 
just got thicker.

They're talking about it at Oaksterdam University, where seminars 
fill up months in advance on marijuana law, cultivation, bud-tending 
and other pot topics; and at a shop across Broadway that sells the 
latest hash-making machines and German vaporizers, while a dozen 
people wait for patient ID cards in the back, some with babies on their laps.

In the backroom of Coffeeshop Blue Sky, a dispensary on 17th Street, 
mention of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's statement last week that 
"it's time for debate" about legalizing pot drew a wide smile from 
Air Force veteran Rosanne Rutherford, who sat waiting to plunk down 
$22 for some "Blue Dream" in a brown paper bag.

"It's been demonized for years, just because of politics," said 
Rutherford, 41. "It was a happy surprise. How things change."

Even the most ardent pot advocates say they're a bit dizzy over the 
governor's comments and the speed of an apparent shift in public 
opinion toward legalizing and taxing pot. A Field Poll in April found 
56 percent of California voters now favor it. As recently as 2004, a 
similar poll found less than 40 percent did. Nationally, a recent ABC 
News/Washington Post poll found that 46 percent of Americans favor 
legalizing small amounts of pot for personal use, up from 22 percent in 1997.

And while some marijuana reform advocates expect a federal 
prohibition to remain firmly in the way of legalizing pot use for 
years, others say they aim to press the issue with a state ballot 
measure, possibly as early as next year.

In the meantime, state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, 
introduced a bill this year to legalize personal possession and use 
of marijuana and clear the way for retail pot sales should the 
federal government change course. The state Board of Equalization 
estimates that Ammiano's bill could raise more than $1.3 billion a 
year for the state, though some scholars in marijuana policy call 
that a pipe dream.

Advocates and scholars see several factors converging, the largest 
being the economy and a desperate hunt for new revenue. A political 
shift with the Obama administration may play a role, and the fact 
voters are more apt to have smoked weed, along, perhaps, with a 
growing sense of futility in the war on marijuana and the cost in 
lives along the Mexican border.

"I've never seen a ... phone survey that showed more than half of 
adults favoring legalization. I've certainly never seen a governor 
putting forth the idea of debating the issue, much less an actual 
bill," said Robert MacCoun, a UC Berkeley public policy professor. 
"It's a comfort zone for politicians we didn't have 10 years ago."

Another possible factor: a public sense that Prop. 215, which 
legalized medicinal marijuana use in 1996, has caused few major 
problems, despite local battles over pot clubs, bad actors and 
high-profile dispensary raids.

"They see the sky hasn't fallen," said Richard Lee, president of 
Oaksterdam University. "You talk about the system being abused. 
Everybody's like, 'So?"

Not so fast, say anti-drug activists. Schwarzenegger's comments, in 
response to a reporter's question about the Field Poll, amounted to a 
populist nod, but no endorsement. He remains against legalization, he 
said. Schwarzenegger also said the experiences of countries such as 
his native Austria that have legalized pot and found troubling 
results should be studied, noted Calvina Fay executive director of 
the Drug Free America Foundation.

"I don't think he was saying it's time to legalize drugs," said Fay, 
who contends health care costs from addiction would far outweigh the 
tax benefits. "He was saying legalization or quasi-legalization hasn't worked."

Advocates say they hope for an ear from the Obama administration, 
which has signaled it has no plans to go after pot clubs in states 
with medicinal marijuana laws. But a campaign for legalization would 
be different, MacCoun said. "The Obama administration has no interest 
in fighting this battle, but if forced to, they will," he said.

One scholar who favors a change in marijuana policy cautioned that a 
full-scale commercial market would drive up abuse.

"The beer industry is in the business of making drunks, and they're 
pretty good at it. I would think the pot industry would be good at 
creating zonkers," said Mark Kleiman, a UCLA public policy professor 
and author of "Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results."

Some, like Lee, envision a local coffeehouse model like Amsterdam. 
Others imagine it more like wine country, spurring a vibrant tourist 
market. Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, said a ballot 
measure now would surely fail. Still, he counts himself surprised and 
"enormously pleased" with the new polls and the prospect of a public debate.

"We've had a long debate on marijuana, but until now, it's always 
pussyfooted around the issue" of legality, he said. "The economy in 
general has forced a change in values." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake