Pubdate: Sun, 10 Jan 2010
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2010 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: Timm Herdt
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


Big Financial Incentives for Government May Tip Scales

Joseph Surgenor of Oxnard is 32, a part-time concert promoter and a 
full-time medical marijuana entrepreneur.

His nonprofit Ventura County Patients Cooperative grows enough 
cannabis to serve the medical needs of its 40-plus members and in 
many cases delivers the pot to their doors and bills them monthly. 
"We're doing it as best we can and as legal as we can," he said.

Surgenor has a vision for his enterprise. He'd like to open a sort of 
marijuana clinic and health spa in downtown Ventura, a place where 
members of the cooperative could come to purchase marijuana, take 
yoga classes and get instruction on healthy living and nutrition.

He is a missionary for medical marijuana, fervent in his belief that 
it brings relief to sick people. But ask him his views about 
legalizing cannabis for broad, recreational use and he pauses.

"My biggest fear," he said, "is that the kids could be getting it. We 
might be sending the wrong message."

Over in Thousand Oaks, Bill Watkins is a conservative economist who 
heads the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California 
Lutheran University. He is decidedly bearish about the state's 
business climate, the state budget and the prospects of the 
Legislature being able to navigate its way out of long-term, 
structural deficits.

Ask Watkins what he thinks about legalizing marijuana in California, 
and he doesn't blink.

"There's no adverse consequence at all that I can see," he said, 
noting that the high rate of teen consumption under the current 
prohibition would not likely rise and could possibly decline under 
regulation. "It just doesn't seem like there are a lot of negatives."

By regulating and taxing marijuana sales, he said, California could 
bring in at least an additional $1 billion a year. "That's the 
closest thing we have to a free lunch."

The conversation about the end of marijuana prohibition has begun.

It intensified in 2009 in a way that stunned even longtime 
drug-legalization advocates, as polls across the country and in 
California registered a decided shift in public thinking. In 2010, it 
will be an issue that few Californians can ignore.

On Tuesday in Sacramento, an Assembly panel could become the first 
legislative committee anywhere in America to approve a bill that 
would legalize the recreational, adult use of marijuana. And within a 
week or so, backers of an initiative to accomplish that goal say, 
they will turn in close to 700,000 signatures that would place the 
issue on the November ballot for all Californians to decide.

"It's really quite something," said Stephen Gutwillig, state director 
of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that has been 
advocating for reform of drug laws for decades. "Marijuana reform had 
been a very niche issue until 2009. It's suddenly become a mainstream 
issue, and it's only a matter of time before the Legislature is going 
to have to participate in regulating marijuana in California."

Medical marijuana laws have been adopted by 13 states, and there has 
been an explosion of dispensaries openly selling marijuana with a 
wink and a nod to the concept of medical necessity in such locales as 
California's pot-growing capital of Humboldt County, Denver and Los 
Angeles. But the notion of a transition to a post-prohibition world 
is still a paradigm-shattering idea.

A Long-Standing Ban

No American born after 1937, when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax 
Act, can remember a world in which to smoke a joint wasn't to risk arrest.

To be sure, no state alone could completely change the legal 
landscape. Marijuana is and will remain for some time a Schedule 1 
drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which means it is 
strictly illegal under federal law and deemed to have a high tendency 
for abuse and no accepted medical uses. Photo with no caption

If California or any state were to legalize marijuana, growers, 
sellers and users would still potentially be subject to federal 
prosecution. But most law enforcement is conducted by state and local 
authorities, who under Section 3 of the California Constitution 
cannot refuse to enforce a state law "on the basis that federal law 
or federal regulations prohibit the enforcement."

Legalization advocates, heartened by last year's decision by the U.S. 
Department of Justice not to federally prosecute anyone using pot in 
compliance with state medical-marijuana laws, believe legal marijuana 
is an emerging states' rights issue.

"If Californians decide to remove penalties, nothing in federal law 
stands in their way," said Theshia Naidoo, a staff attorney with the 
Drug Policy Alliance. "The federal government has neither the 
resources nor the political will to take on state enforcement."

How Would It Work?

What would a world of legal marijuana in California look like? Would 
reefer be rampant? Would that pungent smell that emanated from 
college dorm rooms in the '70s overtake parks and playgrounds? Would 
7-Eleven stores stock packets of pot behind the counter alongside 
canisters of smokeless tobacco?

Proponents of legal marijuana have two words of advice for those who 
tense up at the thought: Think alcohol.

Distillers and wholesalers are licensed and taxed. Retailers are 
regulated and licensed, their hours of operation limited, their 
density restricted and their licenses put at risk if they are caught 
selling alcohol without first checking whether a customer meets the 
minimum age requirement.

"Alcohol might be the broadest parallel," said Assemblyman Tom 
Ammiano, D-San Francisco, author of the marijuana legalization bill 
to be heard in committee this week.

Craig Reinerman, a sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz, wrote a 2004 
academic treatise titled "Lessons from alcohol policy for drug 
policy." In it, he noted many were skeptical in the 1930s that a 
regulatory framework could tame the "wide open" liquor business that 
thrived during Prohibition.

Yet alcohol control laws quickly succeeded in establishing order, he concludes.

"Alcohol moved from being a scandal, crisis and constant front-page 
news story to something routine and manageable, a little noticed 
thread in the fabric of American life," Reinerman wrote. "Alcohol 
regulation has quietly and effectively organized and managed the 
production, distribution and sale of alcohol, as well as public drinking."

Blueprint for Change

At an international conference on drug legalization in Albuquerque 
last fall, proponents rolled out ideas for establishing a regulatory 
regime for marijuana that closely follows the alcohol model.

They argued it makes far more sense than the status quo, in which 
cannabis use is commonplace, a black market thrives and law 
enforcement spends resources in a futile effort to enforce an 
unenforceable ban.

"The problem with the debate up until now is that, despite the 
conclusion that prohibition doesn't work, there's never been a 
meaningful debate about alternatives," said Danny Kushlick, head of 
policy at Britain's Transform Drug Policy Foundation and the author 
of a just-released book, "After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation."

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project for the Washington, 
D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, said most Americans already 
believe "the current regime doesn't work," but policymakers have 
stubbornly declined to look at alternatives.

"It's like taking a broken car to a mechanic to fix it and saying, 
'There's one rule: You can't look under the hood.'"

One important element of alcohol control, Reinerman said in an 
interview, is that it placed a heavy emphasis on local control. He 
noted Mississippi did not lift its ban on alcohol sales until 1966, 
and "we still have dozens and dozens of counties in the United States 
that are dry."

Legalizing Marijuana

The language of the California initiative follows that model: It says 
that while possession of an ounce or less of marijuana would be legal 
statewide, each city could decide on its own whether to allow sales 
in its jurisdiction.

Is It Good for Society?

Skeptics, led by those in law enforcement, say the comparison with 
alcohol regulation simply reveals that marijuana-legalization 
advocates are unable to make an argument that legal pot would be good 
for society.

"The question is: Is it really good?" said Capt. Derek West of the 
Ventura County Sheriff's Department's Special Services Bureau, which 
includes drug enforcement. "Nobody's talking about the social and 
economic costs. Is marijuana good for you? Is it really good for 
society? The comparison with alcohol is a straw argument."

Senior Deputy Gary Pentis, who notes he's "worked dope a lot" over 
his career, said law enforcement officers see the dark side of 
marijuana use, including families and young lives that have been 
turned upside down by it.

"We see the negative effects of the drain of economic resources," he 
said. "That has a huge cost to society. For every dollar in tax 
revenue marijuana would bring in, it would take six, seven, eight 
dollars in tax money to deal with health and abuse issues."

Legalization advocates say such arguments ignore the real-world 
reality that whatever social costs stem from marijuana use already 
exist. The most recent national survey on drug use reports 41 percent 
of all Americans over the age of 12 have tried marijuana at least 
once, and a majority of those 21 to 34 have done so.

Doctors Endorse Change

Dr. Larry Bedard of Sausalito sponsored a resolution approved in 
November by the California Medical Association that declares "the 
criminalization of marijuana to be a failed public policy." He says 
public policy ought to acknowledge reality.

"The U.S. has one of the highest marijuana usage rates in the world 
- -- significantly higher than in the Netherlands, where it is, in 
essence, legal," Bedard said. "As an emergency physician, I'm a 
realist. What would be the difference if marijuana was legal and 
regulated? Do you think more college students are going to smoke 
marijuana than they do now?"

Bedard, now retired, spent much of his career treating patients in 
emergency rooms. He estimates he treated "probably 10,000 patients" 
who were brought in because of injuries and illnesses stemming from 
alcohol use and only a handful who were admitted from incidents 
involving marijuana.

"I'm not saying this would be nirvana," he said of legalization. 
"There is no drug that is used that doesn't have potential adverse 

In his view, however, one of the biggest negative consequences of 
marijuana use today is "getting arrested and getting a record" that 
could limit someone's educational and employment opportunities.

"I think right now the adverse consequences of having it illegal far 
outweigh the consequences of making it legal and regulated."

Marijuana Arrests Up

California has long treated adult possession of a small amount of 
marijuana as a misdemeanor punishable by nothing more than a fine of 
$100. But arrest statistics show that not only is the law frequently 
enforced, but arrests for pot possession are by far the 
fastest-growing category of arrests in the state.

An October study by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and 
Criminal Justice found the number of arrests for misdemeanor 
marijuana possession soared 127 percent from 1990 to 2008, a period 
in which "virtually every category of serious crime registered 
sizeable decreases in rate of arrest."

In 1990, the study shows, misdemeanor marijuana arrests accounted for 
just 8.2 percent of all drug-related arrests, including felonies for 
the sale or manufacture of hard drugs such as heroin, meth and 
cocaine. By 2008, 22.8 percent of all drug arrests in California were 
for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The number of Californians 
arrested for the crime was 61,388, a rate of 168 each day.

"The amount of law enforcement resources being directed toward 
marijuana enforcement is an abomination," said Daniel Macallair, the 
center's executive director and a co-author of the study. "With the 
state budget crisis, how can you justify that?"

Deputy Cites Prevalence

While there are clearly costs involved in processing these arrests, 
Senior Deputy Pentis scoffs at the suggestion that police agencies 
are spending resources going after small-time marijuana users.

The reason the number of arrests is so high, he said, is simply that 
marijuana has become so prevalent, and officers cannot simply ignore 
the fact that people detained for other reasons also have pot in 
their possession.

"You can get marijuana anywhere," he said. "People are smoking it."

Those who are arrested, he said, typically pay the fine and suffer 
little other consequence. "They don't get placed on probation, they 
aren't required to do urine tests."

Ventura defense attorney Jay Leiderman, who specializes in 
marijuana-related cases, said it's true the policy of county 
prosecutors is not to charge stand-alone arrests for misdemeanor 
marijuana possession. "But even though a lot of police officers have 
gotten the memo, they're not with the program."

For those arrested, Leiderman said, the consequences extend well 
beyond the possible $100 fine. Even if a charge isn't filed, the 
arrest alone will show up on background checks for at least two years.

"Everyone who hires today uses those background checks, and that's 
where the real devastation comes in. I can't tell you how many young 
people I've talked to who are waiting for their two years to expire 
so that they can apply for a new job," he said.

For those seeking jobs in law enforcement, banking or nursing, the 
arrest lingers for many years on background checks.

No Quick End to Cartel

Capt. West said the main law enforcement focus on marijuana is to go 
after large-scale growers and dealers. Last year, sheriff's narcotics 
officers destroyed 112,000 plants, seized 550 pounds of marijuana and 
arrested 23 people involved in growing pot in Los Padres National 
Forest. In addition, they raided nine indoor pot-growing operations, 
seizing 3,104 plants and 94 pounds of processed marijuana, arresting 11.

Although legalization advocates argue that a regulated market for 
marijuana would largely drive black marketeers out business, West 
believes otherwise. "The cartel is not going to go away," he said. 
"What they do well is selling dope."

Advocates again point to the alcohol precedent, noting the end of 
Prohibition almost immediately eliminated rum-runners, speak-easies 
and the gang-controlled liquor black market. But they acknowledge if 
marijuana prohibition ended, it would not likely mean the immediate 
end of illegal pot-dealing.

Legal Option Attractive

"There are going to be legitimate market forces and a movement of 
many marijuana consumers away from underground markets, because 
that's where people want to shop," said Gutwillig of the Drug Policy 
Alliance. "Most people would rather buy from a legitimate business 
than a drug dealer, even if it's more expensive."

Lisa Cordova Schwartz of Camarillo, a regular marijuana user since 
she turned to it as an alternative to a doctor-proposed morphine pump 
for pain relief, said her current options in dispensary-free Ventura 
County are to grow her own or to buy from illegal dealers. She 
chooses to grow her own.

"The quality is bad, and we don't want the money to go into the black 
market," she said.

Ventura attorney James Devine, a medical marijuana patient, 
represents clients in the industry who grow, transport and sell 
marijuana to those who have a doctor's recommendation to use it.

He said he believes legal growers, "going full bore, can produce it 
at a rate and a cost that undermines a cartel."

And as a consumer, Devine said, his choice in a world of legal 
marijuana would be a no-brainer.

"Everybody I've ever bought weed from is going to be upset," he said, 
"because I'm never going there again." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake