California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) told a press conference in his home town Monday he had introduced a bill that would create a system of taxed and regulated legal marijuana sales and production. If the bill were to pass, California would become the first state in the nation to break so decisively with decades of pot prohibition.
Ironically it was California which passed the nation's first marijuana prohibition bill, in 1913, according to a history compiled by Drug WarRant's Peter Guither. Federal marijuana prohibition was enacted in 1937.
As currently written, the taxation and regulation aspects of AB 390 would not go into effect until six months after federal marijuana laws were changed, but the removal of marijuana as a controlled substance under California law would go into effect upon passage of the bill. That is likely to change.
"We've just come through a torturous budget process in this state, and the marijuana industry in California is $14 billion going up in smoke," said Ammiano. "We need to capture some of that. This would also allow us to save money on law enforcement, incarceration, and even the environment."
According to research done by the state Board of Equalization, which handles taxes for the state, legalizing and taxing marijuana sales would generate about $1.3 billion in tax revenues a year. It would also, the board said, lead to a 50% decrease in retail prices.
"It's ironic that the largest cash crop in the state is not being taxed," said Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. "We need to devote our law enforcement resources to violent crime. We're losing the war. It's time for regulation and fiscal responsibility."
"This bill is a winning proposition for California's taxpayers," said Dale Gieringer of California NORML (CANORML). "In this time of economic crisis, it makes no sense for California to be wasting money on marijuana prohibition, when we could be reaping tax benefits from a legal, regulated market instead."
It also comes at a time when support for marijuana legalization on the West Coast has gained majority status. In a Zogby International poll released last week, 58% of West Coast respondents said they favored taxing and regulating marijuana.
"This is indicative of what an important moment we are at," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "This week, we saw Dan Walters, a middle of the road columnist for the Sacramento Bee do a column saying now is the time to do this. The Los Angeles Times said it was time for the feds to rethink this. There is a growing sense that Ammiano has captured that the way we've been dealing with marijuana since 1937 doesn't make a bit of sense and rethinking is required."
But, St. Pierre revealed, before summer is here, at least two more states will see similar bills. "California is leading the country in the discussion, but it won't be by itself. By June, there will be 45 or 50 million people having a discussion about legalizing marijuana -- not decrim, not medical, not lowest law enforcement priority, but marijuana legalization."
"I think with the introduction of this bill, we have reached the tipping point in the discussion about marijuana," said St. Pierre. "When the largest state in the nation, facing crushing economic times, is forced to review the festering situation of all that untaxed marijuana and it already has the example of retail access through the dispensaries, the discussion has changed."
"You don't know if you're at the tipping point until you've gone past it, but we could be," said Mirken. "Nobody imagines it's going to get done overnight, but we've suddenly reached the point where it's no longer a fringe issue, and that's huge."
"I think this is the beginning of the end," said Southern California legalization activist Clifford Shaffer, creator of the Let Us Pay Taxes web site, which pleads "Take our Money Please," purportedly on behalf of the California marijuana industry. "A number of factors have come together, such as public education, the obvious failure of the drug war, and the economy, and they are producing a 'perfect storm' for reform. We will see big changes in the coming year and this bill is a good start," Shaffer predicted.
Acceptable progress this year, said Mirken, would be for the bill to move forward at all. "A good year would be getting a couple of committee hearings and though a couple of committees, laying the groundwork for actual passage in a year or two. The conversation was long overdue, but it has now been engaged."
"I'm not so naïve as to think it will pass this year," agreed CANORML's Gieringer. "I think the conflict with federal law will pose problems with law enforcement for sure, and we know the governor always supports law enforcement. This is the opening shot in a process that could take several years to work out, but we have now opened the debate. For all the years I've been dealing with this issue, politicians have been afraid to say anything more than medical marijuana or decriminalization, but as long as you don't move beyond decrim, you still get all the problems of prohibition," he argued.
"It's essential to get past decriminalization; it keeps the problems of prohibition and doesn't bring any revenue to the state," Gieringer continued. "We need a viable solution, not some half-baked one that wouldn't solve the problems. And I think we're close to having a majority here in California. I know we have majority support in Oakland, San Francisco, and other parts of Northern California. I think we're getting there."
It's been 96 years since California passed that first marijuana prohibition law. Can prohibition be ended before it enters its second century? Thanks to Assemblyman Ammiano's AB 390, we can dream that maybe it just might.