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Prohibition: Ban on Spice, BZP Passes Kansas Senate

The Kansas Senate has approved a bill that would ban three synthetic drugs that have effects similar to marijuana and ecstasy. In a 36-1 vote on January 21, the Senate voted to ban a pair of synthetic compounds called JW-018 and JW-073, which are part of a legal smoking blend marketed under names such as Spice or K2, and to ban BZP (benzylpiperazine), a stimulant which is already a Schedule I controlled substance under US federal law.

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''spice'' packet (courtesy wikimedia.org)
A similar measure is working its way through the Kansas House.

The move to criminalize the synthetic drugs came at the behest of Kansas law enforcement, which worried that teenagers were using the substances. But while Spice is sold in Kansas shops, there is little evidence of widespread teen use and even less evidence of any harmful results from it.

Only state Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) voted against the bill. He accused his colleagues of "political posturing" and responding to "hysteria for what is by and large a benign substance." Banning relatively safe substances like Spice could be a fool's errand, he said: "As our youth and others continue to search for legal ways to expand their flights of fancy I fear they will encounter more dangerous ways than what we ban here."

But legislators were unswayed by Haley's logic, preferring instead that of state Sen. Jim Barnett (R-Emporia). "It's an imitation drug, but it's still a drug," he said, explaining his vote.

While the synthetic compounds in Spice are arguably legal under US federal law, they have been banned in Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Sweden. In addition to being banned under US federal law, BZP has been criminalized in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Feature: Hundreds of Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Face Closure Under New Rules Passed by Council

The Los Angeles City Council voted 9-3 Tuesday to approve a medical marijuana dispensary ordinance that, if enforced, will shut down more than 80% of the city's estimated nearly one thousand dispensaries. The ordinance also bars dispensaries from operating within a thousand feet of schools, parks, day care centers, religious institutions, drug treatment centers, or other dispensaries.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
There were only four dispensaries in the city when the city council first addressed the issue in 2005, and 187 when the council imposed a moratorium on new ones in 2007. But hundreds of dispensaries opened via bureaucratic legerdemain during the moratorium, and more have opened since the moratorium was thrown out by a judge last fall.

The ordinance allows for only 70 dispensaries to operate in the city, but grandfathers in 137 dispensaries that were licensed before the council imposed the moratorium and are still in business. The number of allowed dispensaries could shrink even further if suitable locations that do not violate the 1,000-foot rule cannot be found.

The Council rejected another proposal that would allow for a 500-foot proximity restriction, and instead chose the 1,000-foot restriction, without analysis from the Planning Department showing the impact of such a decision. Some Council members objected to these restrictions, indicating that the current ordinance would effectively close all of the dispensaries in their districts. Advocates estimate that dispensaries will be unable to locate in virtually any of the commercial zones in the city and instead will be relegated to remote industrial zones, making it unnecessarily onerous for many patients.

The ordinance, which emerged after 2 ½ years of deliberations by the council, will be one of the toughest in the state. In addition to radically reducing the number of dispensaries and strictly limiting where they can operate, the measure imposes restrictions on hours of operation and signage, bans on-site consumption, and imposes recordkeeping requirements on operators.

"These are out of control," said Councilman Ed Reyes, chairman of the planning and land-use management committee, which oversaw the writing of the ordinance. "Our city has more of these than Starbucks," Reyes added, resorting to an increasingly popular if misleading trope.

But, reflecting the competing pressures the council was under from medical marijuana patients, advocates and dispensary operators on one hand, and law enforcement and angry neighborhood associations on the other, Reyes spoke sympathetically about patients just moments later. "I've seen enough people come into my committee, and you can see they are hurting," he said. "So this is very difficult."

Council President Eric Garcetti conceded that the ordinance will probably be revisited. "It's going to be a living ordinance," he said. "I think there is much good in it. I think nobody will know how some of these things play out until we have them in practice, and we made a commitment to make sure that we continue to improve the ordinance."

It will need to be revisited, said medical marijuana advocates. "I wouldn't be surprised to see this ordinance revised down the line," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML.

For Americans for Safe Access (ASA), passage of the ordinance signified a glass both half empty and half full. "On the one hand, it's a pretty significant milestone that the city of Los Angeles, the second largest in the country, has passed an ordinance regulating medical marijuana sales," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "On the other hand, the ordinance is so restrictive it threatens to shut down all existing dispensaries."

Hermes was referring in particular to the 1,000-foot rule. "This is the most restrictive ordinance in terms of where dispensaries can operate we have seen anywhere in California," he said. "In theory, the city will have somewhere between 70 and 137 dispensaries, but because of the onerous restrictions on where they can operate, those numbers are virtually meaningless. We could see wholesale attrition lowering the number well below the cap."

"This recapitulates the pattern we've seen in Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Rosa and other places," said Gieringer. "You have a period of laissez faire, a green gold rush. At first, nobody notices, but then all of a sudden it gets ragged around the edges and the complaints pile up. By the time it gets before local authorities, the neighborhood outrage is such that it is almost impossible to do anything rational. So the first thing they do is pass a very draconian ordinance just to make sure they get rid of the nuisances."

The LA City Council's years-long regulatory process probably contributed to pent up pressures to rein in the dispensaries, Gieringer said. "It's a shame LA waited so long to pass an ordinance -- cooler heads could have prevailed."

While Gieringer could live with geographic restrictions on where dispensaries can locate, the 1,000-foot rule is too strict and too inflexible, he said. "There's no good rationale for the 1,000-foot rule, but there it is. Our position is that dispensaries should be treated like liquor stores, which have to be 600 feet from schools and parks, but not churches. And variances are allowed, and that's important."

It's one thing to pass an ordinance. Enforcing it is another matter entirely. With as many as a thousand dispensaries scattered around the city's 469 square miles, and a lengthy process required to shut down non-compliant operations, it is an open question how many dispensaries will just quietly ignore the new law. Also, enforcement will not begin until the city comes up with funding to pay for it, which will be derived from fees extracted from dispensaries -- a process the city has not yet finalized. And the 137 exempted dispensaries will have up to six months to relocate if they have to move to comply with the 1,000-foot rule.

"They're going to have a hard time enforcing it, first of all," said CANORML's Gieringer. "They have a bunch of places to close, and that will be a slow and expensive process. Freelance places are likely to spring up," he predicted. "There will probably also be a rush to unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, where there are no such restrictions."

What enforcement will look like is another issue. "The city will try to issue cease and desist orders and hope dispensaries voluntarily comply," said ASA's Hermes. "It remains to be seen whether that will be the case. Hopefully, they will use measures other than criminal enforcement. We don't want to see a return to the tactics of the past, where law enforcement would come in and conduct aggressive raids to shut those facilities down. We hope we can work with the council before that happens so we can avoid having to close them in the first place."

The ordinance will be challenged one way or another. ASA is seeking a compromise with the city council, and is pondering whether to take legal action. In the meantime, a group of patients and providers is also taking about a legal challenge and about a local referendum. Only 27,000 signatures would be required to get a measure on the municipal ballot.

LA City Council Approves Medical Marijuana Ordinance; Hundreds of Dispensaries Will be Forced to Close, Thousands of Jobs Lost

The Los Angeles City Council voted 9-3 today to approve a medical marijuana dispensary ordinance that, if enforced, will shut down more than 80% of the city's estimated nearly one thousand dispensaries. The ordinance also bars dispensaries from operating within a thousand feet of schools, parks, day care centers, religious institutions, drug treatment centers, or other dispensaries. The ordinance allows for only 70 dispensaries to operate in the city, but grandfathers in 137 dispensaries that were licensed before the council imposed a moratorium on new dispensaries. The number of allowed dispensaries could shrink even further if suitable locations that do not violate the 1,000-foot rule cannot be found. With this vote, the city council will effectively push thousands of dispensary employees onto the unemployment rolls. Look for a feature article on the council vote and its ramifications on Friday.
Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana: Corzine Signs Bill, Making New Jersey the 14th State

Outgoing New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine Monday signed the medical marijuana bill approved earlier this month by the state legislature, making New Jersey the 14th state to legalize therapeutic cannabis use and the first one in the Mid-Atlantic region. Corzine was replaced Tuesday by incoming Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

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New Jersey patients share victory hug after legislative vote (courtesy Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey)
Under the bill, which should take effect within six months, only patients whose diseases or conditions are specifically listed -- cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorder, Lou Gehrig's disease, muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, and terminal illness -- qualify to use medical marijuana. The state health department may include other illnesses at a later date.

The bill does not allow patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana plants. Instead, medical marijuana will be distributed through a small number of state-licensed dispensaries or "alternate treatment centers." Patients or their designated caregivers could procure the medicine at the dispensary.

Ironically, as public support for medical marijuana reaches record levels, state medical marijuana laws are becoming increasingly restrictive. New Jersey's is the most restrictive yet. On the other hand, a week ago it had no medical marijuana law at all.

Marijuana: Washington State Decriminalization and Legalization Bills Killed in Committee

A pair of marijuana reform bills before the Washington state legislature were voted down by a House committee Wednesday. HB 2401 would have legalized marijuana possession for people 21 or older, and HB 1177 would have decriminalized the possession of up to 40 grams.

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Washington State House, Olympia
Both bills got a public hearing before the Assembly Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee last week. But despite impressive testimony, a public opinion poll showing majority support for legalization, and the announcement by reform activists that they would put a legalization initiative on the ballot this fall, the same committee voted 6-2 against legalization and 5-3 against decriminalization.

The legalization bill would have seen marijuana sold through state liquor stores and taxed at 15%, with most revenues going for drug prevention and treatment. Those programs are facing potential cuts as the state grapples with a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. The decriminalization bill would have moved simple possession from a misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum one-day jail sentence to an infraction.

The four committee Republicans voted en bloc against both measures. Two committee Democrats joined with the GOP to vote against legalization, while one Democrat voted against decriminalization.

Committee Chairman Chris Hurst (D-Enumclaw), who joined with the GOP on both votes, said he could not vote for something that conflicted with federal law. "I took an oath of office to uphold the state constitution and the federal constitution," he said. "I cannot, in good conscience, pass a law or vote for a law that in my opinion is against federal law."

"The amount of money that we could realize over legalizing it and regulating it is close to $300 million a year," said Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo), who voted for both measures. "My feeling is that this is the time to challenge the federal government and we should be doing that."

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), the former head of the King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project and a cosponsor of the legalization bill, said marijuana use is already widespread and that regulating it is better than not. "I want to regulate a product that potentially has hazardous consequences," he said. "A 'no' vote on this bill is a vote for prohibition and the illegal markets that it spawns."

While a decriminalization bill is still alive in the state Senate, Wednesday's Assembly committee vote effectively kills marijuana reform in the state legislature this year. If activists have their way, by next year it will be too late. Five well-known reform activists, including Hempfest head Vivian McPeak, announced last week they had filed a ballot initiative to remove all penalties for adults who grow, possess, and sale any quantity of marijuana. They need to get 240,000 valid signatures by July 2 to qualify for the November ballot.

Feature: South Dakota Medical Marijuana Campaigners Set to Hand in Signatures for November Initiative

In 2006, voters in South Dakota become the first -- and the only -- in the nation to reject a state initiative legalizing medical marijuana, defeating it by a margin of 52% to 48%. This year, they will have a chance to reconsider. The South Dakota Coalition for Compassion announced this week it has gathered enough signatures to put its medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot.

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coalition banner
Advocates need 16,776 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot. The coalition says it has collected more than 30,000 signatures, far more than what is generally considered necessary to make up for the inevitable invalid signatures.

The coalition had planned to turn the signatures in to the South Dakota secretary of state Wednesday, but icy highways forced a change of plans. Now, organizers will make the 200-mile trip from Sioux Falls to the state capital in Pierre Monday, providing roads are passable.

The initiative, which was crafted with the help of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, DC, would enable people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or Alzheimer's disease to qualify to use medical marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. So could people suffering from cachexia or wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, and severe or persistent muscle spasms. The initiative contains a provision that would allow the state Department of Health to add other conditions to the list.

The Health Department would issue registration cards to patients and caregivers once a patient presents a written recommendation from a physician. Patients could possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana and grow up to six plants, or they could designate a caregiver to grow for them. Caregivers could grow for no more than five patients. There is no provision for dispensaries.

Under the initiative, patients who have registration IDs or other proof they are bona fide medical marijuana patients from other states could use medical marijuana in South Dakota. Schools, employers, and landlords would be barred from discriminating against patients or caregivers unless they were bound to by federal law or would lose federal funding. Similarly, medical marijuana patients could not be discriminated against on organ transplant lists.

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Patrick Lynch
Coalition director Patrick Lynch, a former chairman of the board for the North Central States Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, was driven to support the effort by his own experience and the suffering of others. "I am an MS sufferer," he said. "We're doing this out of compassion for patients, for other people who are going through the same thing I am."

Lynch was optimistic that a medical marijuana initiative could win this time around. "We only got beat by four points last time, and I feel real good about it passing this time," he said. "People are more educated and informed now. The response we've had has been overwhelming. I think this is going to happen."

The South Dakota legislative session just opened, but it is unclear whether anyone will sponsor a medical marijuana bill this year. Repeated efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill in Pierre going back to 2001 have all been throttled by hostile committee chairs, and last year was no exception.

"We wanted to give the legislature one last chance to act and save the state the money of holding the election, but unfortunately, our support in the legislature has been deteriorating," said Emmett Reistroffer, chief petitioner for the coalition. "We were really banking on the Democrats, but their leadership has not been friendly."

Reistroffer said the Democratic leadership was pressuring last year's bill sponsor, Rep. Martha Vanderlinde (D-Sioux Falls), not to sponsor a bill this year. "If she decides not to sponsor it, that could be the end of our efforts in the legislature. Vanderlinde comes from the most medical marijuana-friendly district in the state and is a nurse, so it wouldn't hurt her viability, but the Democratic leadership worries that if it got out of committee, Democrats would have to vote on it, and they don't want to do that," he said.

Reistroffer proudly pointed out that the signature-gathering campaign was completely financed by in-state money, primarily from business owners in the state's two largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City. But he hopes to attract some outside funding from national reform groups for the fall campaign.

"We want to launch a very aggressive yet compassionate public education campaign, so that patients and professionals can engage other people in the community in discussion, especially older folks," he said. "We want them to understand that we are interested in the day-to-day relief of suffering, not in getting high. We've been communicating with MPP, and we're hopeful they will help fund advertising for the campaign."

"We were there for the 2006 campaign where we came up just short," said MPP's Steve Fox. "We're going to see how it goes, probably do a poll at some point, and then figure out if and how we will be able to help. They only need two points to get over the top."

One feature of the 2006 effort was organized opposition led by then Attorney General Larry Long (R). Long mobilized law enforcement to speak out against the measure and worked with the Bush administration to bring an official from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to Sioux Falls to campaign against it.

The Obama era ONDCP is unlikely to be out campaigning against medical marijuana initiatives, and Reistroffer was hopeful that Long's successor as attorney general, former US Attorney for the Eastern District of South Dakota Marty Jackley, would be less recalcitrant.

"Jackley has already signaled more progressive drug policies as part of his program," Reistroffer said. "He announced he wants to create a program to send prescription addicts to treatment, not jail. He is already looking at drug policy as a health care matter more than a law enforcement matter."

But Jackley threw cold water on Reistroffer's hopes in a Wednesday interview with the Associated Press. While saying he had yet to have an official position on the initiative, Jackley trotted out familiar law enforcement plaints.

In states that allow medical marijuana, he said, police have problems distinguishing between those who can legally use it and those who "hide" behind medical marijuana laws so they can smoke for non-medical reasons. "It essentially becomes complete authorization of marijuana use," Jackley claimed.

And he claimed that marijuana use leads to violence. "As a prosecutor, I've seen the adverse effects that marijuana can have on certain personalities," the attorney general said. "We've experienced violent crimes associated with the use of marijuana."

Once the signatures are turned in Monday, the secretary of state has 45 days to certify the initiative for the ballot. Look for the battle to begin in earnest then as South Dakota vies to become the first state in the Upper Midwest to become medical marijuana-friendly.

Marijuana/Medical Marijuana: More States, More Bills, More Hearings

It's becoming difficult to keep up with all the marijuana bills being filed at statehouses around the county. In addition to the bills in Washington state (see related story here), in the past 10 days we saw a medical marijuana bill introduced in Missouri, another in Alabama, and another in Virginia. There was also a decriminalization bill introduced in Virginia, and in New Hampshire a decrim bill and a "tax and regulate" legalization bill got hearings.

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
In Missouri, Rep. Kate Meiners (D-Kansas City) and 16 cosponsors introduced HB 1670, which would allow patients with debilitating diseases to use marijuana upon a physician's recommendation. Patients or caregivers could possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana and three mature and four immature plants. Previous bills have failed to move in the Republican-dominated legislature, but the presence of a Republican cosponsor this year could make a difference.

In Alabama, Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) has introduced HB 207, which would allow patients with specified debilitating conditions to use marijuana. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Previous medical marijuana bills died in 2007 and 2008.

In Virginia, Delegate Harvey Morgan, a 79-year-old Republican, filed HB 1136, a medical marijuana bill that would protect from prosecution patients who have "a valid prescription issued by a medical doctor." The bill's prospects are uncertain. Morgan is a senior Republican and committee chair, but the measure also faces opposition.

Another bill introduced by Morgan, HB 1134, would make small-time marijuana possession a civil offense rather than a criminal one and mandates a maximum $500 fine. It would also create a rebuttable presumption that anyone growing five plants or less is growing for personal consumption, and treats small grows like small amounts of marijuana. The bill would also do away with a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling less than an ounce and a five-year mandatory minimum for selling more than an ounce. Like Morgan's medical bill, the prospects for the decrim bill are uncertain.

In New Hampshire, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday held public hearings on two bills, HB 1653, which would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and HB 1652, which would legalize the possession of up to one ounce and three plants, and provide for the regulated and taxed sale of marijuana to adults. The decrim bill is sponsored by Rep. Steven Lindsey (D-Keene), while the tax and regulate bill is sponsored by Reps. Calvin Pratt (R-Goffstown), Joel Winters (D-Manchester), Carla Skinder (D-Cornish), and Timothy Comerford (R-Fremont).

Feature: New Jersey Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, State to Become 14th to Okay Medical Marijuana (Plus DC)

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Sen. Scutari and Assem. Gusciora
New Jersey is set to become the 14th state to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana after the state Assembly Monday approved the "Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act" by a vote of 46-14. Later Monday evening, the state Senate, which had already approved its version of the measure, voted final approval by a margin of 25-13. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill.

The Assembly debated the bill for half an hour Monday afternoon before approving it. The debate took place before galleries backed with bill supporters and opponents. It was a similar scene in the Senate a few hours later.

"It does not make sense for many of New Jersey's residents to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors of the bill. "Medical marijuana can alleviate a lot of suffering, and there is no evidence that legalizing it for medical use increases overall drug use."

The bill will be one of the most restrictive in the nation. Patients diagnosed by their primary care physician as having a qualifying medical condition would be allowed to obtain -- but not grow -- medical marijuana through one of at least six "alternative treatment centers," or dispensaries. But patients would be able to register with only one dispensary at a time and would have to use the written recommendation within a month of when it was written.

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Sen. Scutari and Mike Oliveri
Qualifying medical conditions include severe or chronic pain, severe nausea or vomiting or cachexia brought on by HIV/AIDS or cancer ("or the treatment thereof"), muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel diseases, and terminal illnesses where the patient has less than a year to live. Chronic pain was removed from the original bill in an Assembly committee vote last summer, but reinserted last week when the Assembly approved an amendment by Assemblyman Gusciora.

Patients could possess up to two ounces and be prescribed up to two ounces per month. That is an increase from the one ounce possession limit in earlier versions of the bill. Patients would be able to name a caregiver, courier, or delivery option to pick up medicine at the dispensary and deliver it to them.

"This will be the strictest medical marijuana law in the nation," Gusciora said at a statehouse press conference Monday. "We have a good bill that will be very strict and will not decriminalize marijuana, but will allow doctors to prescribe the best treatment for their patients."

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patients share victory hug
Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who has lobbied tirelessly for passage of a medical marijuana bill, agreed that the final Garden State bill is very tight, but said it was a start. "There will be some patients who will be able to get some relief," she said. "We think once the program's up and running and people see that there aren't problems, we'll be able to go back and get in some more of our patients."

Also at the press conference were patients Diane Riportella and Mike Oliveri. Riportella was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2007 and given no more than five years to live. Oliveri suffers from muscular dystrophy.

"I'm so excited to be able to be alive and to be here for this moment," said Riportella, 53, of Egg Harbor Township. "Within a few seconds, I'm relaxed and I'm smiling and I go to Disneyland just for a few minutes and say 'It's not so bad, I can live another day,'" Riportella said.

Oliveri, 25, said he moved from his New Jersey home to California in order to be able to legally access medical marijuana. He said he vaporizes about an ounce a week to ease the pain in his legs and back and calm his digestive tract and that he had used it illegally before leaving for the West Coast. "I took every medication known to man before I took weed," said Oliveri, 25. "I knew it was a risk... but it was a life or death matter."

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CMMNJ board members and friends in Assembly committee room, after Assembly vote and waiting for Senate vote (front row: Chris Goldstein, Peter Rosenfeld, John Wilson, Jim Miller; back row: Jim Bissell, Ken Wolski, Chuck Kwiatkowski)
The bill was supported by organizations including the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Special credit goes to the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, the patient and advocate group that has fought for years to get the bill over the top. The group's executive director, Ken Wolski, was pleased with the victory, but wasn't resting on his laurels. "We are grateful that the legislators finally acknowledged that marijuana is medicine and that patients in New Jersey who use it with a doctor's recommendation should not fear arrest and imprisonment," he said after the votes. "But this is really a national issue. New Jersey citizens should be able to travel anywhere in the country and use their medicine without fear of arrest. We are calling on the federal government to reschedule marijuana to a more appropriate schedule, and to protect New Jersey patients who need to travel outside the state."

New Jersey will now join Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington in the list of medical marijuana states. Barring any unexpected hitches, that list will also soon include the District of Columbia.

Feature: In US First, California Assembly Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill

A bill to legalize the adult use, sale, and production of marijuana was approved Tuesday by a 4-3 vote in the California Assembly Public Safety Committee. While the vote was historic -- it marked the first time a state legislative committee anywhere had voted for a marijuana legalization bill -- a Friday legislative deadline means the bill is likely to die before it reaches the Assembly floor.

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hearing room audience
Still, supporters pronounced themselves well pleased. "The conversation is definitely gaining traction in Sacramento," bill sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF) told a press conference at the capitol after the vote. "This is a significant vote because it legitimizes the quest for debate. There was a time when the m-word would never have been brought up in Sacramento."

"This historic vote marks the formal beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States," said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who testified before the committee both Tuesday and in an earlier hearing. "Making marijuana legal has now entered the public dialogue in a credible way. Decades of wasteful, punitive, racist marijuana policy have taken quite a toll in this country. The Public Safety Committee has demonstrated that serious people take ending marijuana prohibition seriously."

"The mere fact that there was a vote in the Assembly to regulate and control the sale and distribution of marijuana would have been unthinkable even one year ago," said former Orange County Judge Jim Gray, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who also testified before the committee last fall. "And if the bill isn't fully enacted into law this year, it will be soon. Or, the bill will be irrelevant because the voters will have passed the measure to regulate and tax marijuana that will be on the ballot this November," Gray pointedly added.

The bill, AB 390, the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act, would impose a $50 an ounce tax on marijuana sales and would task the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to regulate them. It was amended slightly from the original by Ammiano. In one example, the bill strikes "legalize" and replaces it with "regulate." It also strikes out language saying the bill would go into effect after federal law changes. And it adds language to clarify that medical marijuana does not come under its purview.

Tuesday's Public Safety Committee opened to a hearing room packed with legalization supporters, but also by more than a dozen uniformed police chiefs and high-ranking police officers from around the state. Law enforcement was out in force to make its displeasure known.

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police and preacher in attendance to oppose the Ammiano bill
But first came Ammiano himself, recusing himself from his position as committee chair to testify in favor of his bill. "This is landmark legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana," Ammiano told his colleagues. "It would generate nearly a billion dollars annually in revenues, according to the Board of Equalization, and would leave law enforcement to focus on serious crimes, violent crimes, and hard drugs. The drug wars have failed," the San Francisco solon said emphatically. "Prohibition has fostered anarchy. Legalization allows regulations, and regulation allows order."

Since the primary hearing on the bill took place last fall, Tuesday's hearing was limited to 30 minutes, and witnesses either said their pieces succinctly or were gently chided by committee Vice-Chair Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills). The Drug Policy Alliance's Gutwillig recapped testimony he gave last fall, as did the Marijuana Policy Project California state director Aaron Smith.

"AB 390 is a historic reversal of failed marijuana policies," said Gutwillig. "It would begin to control a substance that is already commonly available and consumed, but unregulated. Prohibition has created enormous social costs and jeopardized public safety instead of enhancing it."

"This legislation would finally put California on track for a sensible marijuana policy in line with the views of most California voters," said Smith.

Also endorsing the bill was Matt Gray of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, a California group lobbying for more progressive criminal justice policies. "We support the bill," said Gray. "Marijuana is the state's largest cash crop, and this bill will remove a revenue stream from organized crime and decrease availability for youth."

The opposition, led by law enforcement, church and community anti-drug groups, and a former deputy drug czar, threw everything short of the kitchen sink at the committee in a bid to sink the bill. Hoary old chestnuts reminiscent of "Reefer Madness" were revived, as well as new talking points designed to discourage members from voting for legalization.

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bill sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, with Dale Gieringer, Stephen Gutwillig and Aaron Smith in background
"I traveled here with a heavy heart," said former deputy director for demand reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy Andrea Barthwell, the big hitter leading off for the opposition. "The eyes of America are upon you," she told the committee. "We don't want you to set a course that worsens the health of Americans for years to come. This is a scheme that will benefit drug cartel kingpins and corner drug dealers and create chaos in our public health system," she warned.

"People all over the country are afraid California will have this leverage in the same way the medical marijuana initiative was leveraged to create a sense that these are reasonable policies," Barthwell continued. "We've reduced drinking and smoking through public health, and prohibition is working for our young people to keep them drug free," she added.

"Legalization of marijuana will only increase the challenges facing us," said San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer. "What good can come from making powerful addictive drugs more cheaply available? Don't we have enough trouble with the two legal drugs? Adding an additional intoxicant will lead to increase drugged driving and teen sex," she told the committee. "Marijuana of today is not the dope your parent's smoked," she added for good measure.

After mentioning that in the Netherlands cannabis cafes have "run rampant," asserting that "drug cartels will become legal cultivators," and that legalization would bring about "quantum increases" in the availability of marijuana, Manheimer swung for the fence. "To balance the budget on the back of the harm caused by illegal intoxicants is mind-boggling -- I would call it blood money," she said. Worse, "the addictive qualities of these drugs will cause more crimes as people struggle to find money to buy marijuana. We are very concerned about marijuana-related violence."

Then it was the turn of Claude Cook, regional director of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition. "This is dangerous work we do," Cook said by way of introduction. "We are strongly opposed to AB 390, we see no benefit for our communities. Marijuana is also carcinogenic. If we want to raise revenue, maybe it would be safer to just bring back cigarette vending machines. This is human misery for tax dollars." And by the way, "Drug offenders who are in prison have earned their way there by past criminal conduct," he said.

Cook predicted downright disaster were the bill to pass. "Use by juveniles will increase. Organized crime will flourish. California will become a source nation for marijuana for the rest of the country. The cartels will thrive. Highway fatalities will rise," he said without explaining how he arrived at those dire conclusions.

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police waiting to speak at anti-drug rally after committee vote
"I see the devastation of marijuana and drugs in my community," thundered Bishop Ron Allen, "CEO and president" of the International Faith-based Coalition, and a self-described former crack addict who started with marijuana. "If marijuana is legalized and we have to deal with it in our liquor stores and communities, you have never seen a devastation like you're going to see. It's going to lose us a generation. You don't want this blood on your hands."

"I'm going to discount the ad hominems and alarmist attacks," Ammiano replied after the testimony. "Some of the arguments today reminded me of Reefer Madness," he said.

Before moving to a vote, committee members briefly discussed their positions. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) noted that because of the state's medical marijuana law, "We have created a class difference, where a certain class of our population can utilize dispensaries for their own reasons to use marijuana, and on the other hand, we have the street activity around marijuana that is not under semi-legal status."

Skinner voted for the bill, while saying she was not sure she would support it on the Assembly floor. "I'm not supporting marijuana, but the question is do we regulate it and is it time to have a serious debate."

In the end, four of five Democratic committee members -- all from the Bay area -- supported the bill, while one Democrat joined the two Republicans on the committee in opposing it.

The bill would normally head next to the Assembly Health Committee, but given the time constraints on the legislature, no further action is likely to be taken this session. Still, Tuesday was a historic day in Sacramento and in the annals of the American marijuana reform movement.

Marijuana: San Francisco Supervisor Wants to Make "License, Regulate, and Tax" Official City Policy

If San Francisco City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has his way, voters there will go to the polls in June to decide whether the city should tax and regulate marijuana growing and distribution. On Tuesday, Mirkarimi proposed a ballot measure that would make it official city policy to "license, regulate, and tax the cultivation and sale of cannabis."

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Ross Mirkarimi
"It's time that we have a regulating system in place," said Mirkarimi, who said regulations could address issues such as where grows could take place, how much could be grown, and what safety precautions are needed.

Mirkarimi said the city could not tax marijuana sales without authorization by the state. A bill by fellow San Franciscan Assemblyman Tom Ammiano passed an Assembly committee this week, but is effectively dead for the session after failing to get a hearing before another committee, but an initiative that would tax and regulate marijuana sales by local option is likely to be on the ballot in November.

Mirkarimi must still won the support of a majority of the Board of Supervisors to get the issue on the ballot.

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