Pubdate: Thu, 15 Jul 2010
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2010 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Cited: Proposition 19
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)

Legalising Marijuana


California, Ever a Global Leader in Cannabis Matters, May Forge Ahead Again

IN 1971 a group of teenagers in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, 
started meeting after school, at 4:20PM, to get high. The habit 
spread, and 420 became code for fun time among potheads worldwide. 
Ever since, California has remained in the vanguard of global 
cannabis culture. Oaksterdam University in Oakland is today unique in 
the world as a sort of Aristotelian lyceum for the study of all 
aspects--horticultural, scientific, historical--of the weed.

Legally, California has also been a pioneer, at least within America. 
In 1996 it was the first state to allow marijuana to be grown and 
consumed for medicinal purposes. Since then, 13 states and the 
District of Columbia have followed, and others are considering it. 
But this year California may set a more fundamental, and global, 
precedent. It may become the first jurisdiction in the world to 
legalise, regulate and tax the consumption, production and 
distribution of marijuana.

Other Western countries--from Argentina to Belgium and Portugal--have 
liberalised their marijuana laws in recent decades. Some places, such 
as the Netherlands and parts of Australia, have in effect 
decriminalised the use of cannabis. But no country has yet gone all the way.

Several efforts are under way in California to do exactly that. One 
is a bill wending its way through the state legislature that would 
essentially treat marijuana like alcohol, making it legal for people 
aged 21 and over. Sponsored by Tom Ammiano, a flamboyant gay activist 
and assemblyman from San Francisco, it would levy a $50 excise tax on 
every ounce produced and a sales tax on top, then use those funds for 
drug education. A rival bill would de-penalise (as opposed to 
legalise) marijuana, so that getting caught with it would be no worse 
than receiving a parking ticket.

The more visible effort is a measure, Proposition 19, which will be 
put directly to voters on the November ballot. This so-called 
Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, sponsored by the 
founder of Oaksterdam University, would also legalise the growing, 
selling and smoking of marijuana for those older than 21, within 
certain limits. But it would leave the regulation and taxation 
entirely up to counties and cities. These could choose to ban the 
business or to tax it at whatever rate they pleased.

This burst of activity may yet come to nothing, however. California 
has deeply conservative parts, and Proposition 19 has mobilised them. 
George Runner, a Republican state senator, calls legalisation a 
"reprehensible" idea. He fears that "once again California would be 
the great experiment for the rest of the world at the expense of 
public safety, community health and common sense."

Voters, meanwhile, seem split. One poll has Proposition 19 winning 
narrowly, another shows a small plurality against it (see chart). To 
nobody's surprise, voters in the liberal counties round San Rafael, 
Oaksterdam and San Francisco clamour for legalisation while those in 
the inland counties abhor it.

Perhaps more surprisingly, most blacks and Latinos are also against 
it. And yet blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at twice, 
three times or even four times the rate of whites in every major 
county of California, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a lobby 
that wants to end America's war on drugs. This seems especially 
unfair, because young blacks actually smoke marijuana less than young 
whites. Alice Huffman, the leader in California of the National 
Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, America's most 
influential civil-rights lobby, is for legalisation because she 
considers the existing laws "the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow 
justice on poor African-Americans".

The debate tends to lose focus as it gains heat, because nobody quite 
knows what legalisation would lead to. So the RAND Corporation, a 
think-tank in Santa Monica, has bravely tried to project some effects.

One is that the price of marijuana is likely to decline by more than 
80% upon legalisation. An ounce of standard marijuana in California 
now costs between $300 and $450. The retail cost to consumers would 
depend, in the case of Proposition 19, on the taxes applied by 
counties, which are unknown as yet. Even so, weed seems likely to 
become cheaper.

This suggests that consumption will increase, but it is unclear by 
how much, according to the Rand study. That is because nobody knows 
what effect price changes, not to mention more fundamental shifts in 
attitude and culture, will have on the demand for marijuana. Today, 
7% of Californians report using marijuana in the past month, compared 
with 6% in the rest of the country. That rate might go up. Or it 
might not: Californians also smoke less than other Americans and do 
more yoga, all of which is legal.

Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the 
fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of 
nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned 
because of marijuana. RAND thinks these savings are probably smaller, 
about $300m. As for revenues, California's government estimates that 
the excise and sales taxes of the Ammiano bill would bring in about 
$1.4 billion a year. Rand thinks the figure could be higher or lower, 
especially if Proposition 19 prevails, since it leaves tax rates yet 
to be decided.

Nothing, in short, is certain, especially because legalisation would 
clash against federal laws and international treaties. The Obama 
administration has hinted at discretion, but in theory federal 
prosecutors could undo any state law by continuing to prosecute 
individual Californians over marijuana, or by suing the state. And 
Congress could withhold federal money, as it did in 1984 from states 
that resisted raising the drinking age to 21.

But Californians and others may also decide that the issue is 
primarily one of individual freedom, or at least the ending of an era 
of cruel hypocrisy. Why burden the lives of so many adolescents, 
especially black men, with permanent criminal records? They only did 
what even past and current presidents have admitted to, whether they 
inhaled or not.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake