In an historic hearing Wednesday, the California legislature examined the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. The hearing marked the first time legalization has been discussed in the legislature since California banned marijuana in 1913.
Ammiano press conference for hearing
Onlookers and media packed the hearing room for the three-hour session. Capitol employees had to hook up remote monitors in the hallway for the overflowing crowd of supporters and opponents of marijuana legalization.
The hearing before the legislature's Public Safety Committee was called for and chaired by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who earlier this year introduced AB 390, a bill that would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in the state. While Ammiano has made clear that he supports legalization, the witness list for the hearing was well-balanced, with legislative analysts and representatives of law enforcement as well as reform advocates in the mix.
The hearing began with testimony from legislative analysts, who estimated that the state could realize tax revenues ranging from hundreds of millions to nearly $1.4 billion a year from legalization. The latter figure was from the state Board of Equalization, while the lower estimates came from the Legislative Analyst's Office.
But tax revenues wouldn't be the only fiscal impact of legalization. "If California were to legalize, we would no longer have offenders in state prison or on parole for marijuana offenses," noted Golaszewski. "We estimate the savings there at several tens of millions of dollars a year. There would also be a substantial reduction in the number of arrests and criminal cases law enforcement makes. To the extent they no longer have to arrest people for marijuana, they could shift resources elsewhere."
Golaszewski said there are roughly 1,500 people imprisoned on marijuana charges in California, 850 of them for possession offenses.
The analysts were followed by a panel of attorneys who debated the legality of state legalization. "If California decides to legalize, nothing in the Constitution stands in its way," said Tamar Todd, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.
But while Marty Mayer, attorney for the California Peace Officers Association (CPOA), generally agreed with that assessment, he also argued that the state could not unilaterally legalize. "The state of California cannot unequivocally legalize marijuana," he said, noting that marijuana is prohibited under federal law.
Next up were the cops, and there were no surprises there. "Marijuana radically diminishes our society," said CPOA president John Standish. "Marijuana is a mind-altering addictive drug that robs you of memory, motivation, and concentration," he said before Ammiano cut him short, noting that the purpose of the hearing was to discuss public safety and economic impacts of legalization, not to debate marijuana's effects on health.
"Alcohol and cigarettes are taxed to the hilt, but the taxes don't cover the cost of medical treatment, let alone DUIs," Standish continued. "This would lead to an increase in crime rates, social costs, medical costs, and environmental concerns. There is also a very real concern that Mexican drug cartels are behind most of the imported marijuana coming into the US," he added, without explaining what that had to do with legalizing marijuana production in California.
And, pulling out yet another woolly chestnut, Standish resorted to the old and discredited "gateway theory" that marijuana use is a stepping stone to hard drug use. "Marijuana is a gateway drug," he said. "Every incident in 30 years of law enforcement I have been in where marijuana has been involved has not been good. Both marijuana and methamphetamine are equally critical problems," he said.
After reciting a short list of violent incidents around large-scale illegal grows allegedly operated by Mexican drug cartels, Sara Simpson, acting assisting chief of the Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, warned that the cartels were likely to try to maintain their market share. "That could lead to more violence," she warned.
"Legalizing marijuana is bad public policy," said Simpson. "A significant number of marijuana users are incapacitated," she claimed. "When a recreational drug user backs over your four-year-old, you consider yourself a victim of violent crime. Legalization would increase death and injury totals."
"Why would we want to legalize a substance known to cause cancer?" asked Scott Kirkland, chief of police in El Cerrito and chairman of the California Police Chiefs' Medical Marijuana Task Force. "Legalization will only result in increased use of marijuana with a corresponding increase in drugged driving," he warned.
But later witnesses said that California was simply wasting resources by arresting marijuana offenders. Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said that arrest statistics from the past 20 years show that California law enforcement is more focused on prosecuting simple possession cases than cultivation and sales.
"California's drug war, particularly on marijuana, is focused on drug users," he said. "Virtually every category of crime has declined since 1990, except for a dramatic increase in arrests for marijuana possession. In 1990, there were 20,834 arrests for possession. Last year, there were 61,388 arrests. "
This was going on while arrests for all other drug offenses declined, Macallair said. For all other drugs, arrests were down 29%. Even marijuana manufacture and sales arrests had declined by 21%. More people went to prison in California in 2008 for marijuana possession than for manufacture or sales, he added.
"Our courtrooms are full every day with marijuana cases," said Terence Hallinan, the former San Francisco City and County District Attorney. "It's still against the law to sell even a gram. There are a lot of people in court and jail for marijuana offenses."
The Rev. Canon Mary Moreno Richardson of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego told the committee marijuana law enforcement has especially pernicious effects on the young. "When they find a group of kids with a joint, they take them all in to juvie. When they're incarcerated, they join gangs for safety. Jails have become the boot camps for the gangs," she said. "We need to think about and protect our youth."
"I speak on behalf of California's millions of marijuana users who are tired of being criminals and would like to be taxpaying, law-abiding citizens," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. "We think it makes no sense for taxpayers to pay for criminalizing marijuana users and their suppliers when we could be raising revenues in a legal market."
"Today, our marijuana laws are putting our children in harm's way," said retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray. "We want to reduce the exposure of a lifestyle of marijuana use and selling to our children, but prohibition's illegal dealers don't ask for ID," he said.
At the end of the hearing, Ammiano opened the floor to public comment. While most speakers supported legalization, a contingent of conservative African-American religious leaders vigorously denounced it. "I know from personal experience the devastation that occurs in one's life and community as a result of drug abuse that began with marijuana," said Bishop Ron Allen, founder and president of the International Faith Based Coalition.
Also in opposition was Californians for Drug Free Youth. John Redman, the group's director, said legalizing marijuana to raise revenues was reprehensible. "This is blood money, pure and simple," Redman said.
The battle lines are shaping up. On one side are law enforcement, conservative clerics, and anti-drug zealots. On the other are researchers, activists, and, evidently, the majority of Californians. Ammiano gave as a handout at the hearing a sheet listing at least six recent polls showing majority support for marijuana legalization in the state.
The bill isn't going anywhere for awhile. Ammiano said he will hold more hearings later and may revise it based on the hearings. But marijuana legalization is now before the legislature in California.