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Feature: Historic Hearing on Marijuana Legalization in the California Legislature

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #606)
Consequences of Prohibition

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.

overflow room
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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Codger (not verified)

These anti drug zealots just can't giove it up! I havent heard of any research that proves any link between smoking marijuana and cancer and I read everything on the topic I can find. Some research suggests just the opposite. As far a s drugged driving goes there are plenty of stoned drivers out there now and it will still remain a crime to drive impaired if legalization or decriminalizatio occurs. Cartels please what violence are they going to increase? Maybe declare war on california? As long as prices stay low enough there wont be a significant black market they will move on to another substance like Meth which they already smuggle in along with Marijuana.
But we must protect the children! My guess is any child who wants marijuana has no problem getting it now and that wont change legal or illegal if they want it they will find a way to get it. Its common for children to get an older person to buy them alcohol it will remain the same for marijuana. Gateway drug well that's a load of crap if smokers are buying legally the will not have the exposure to other drugs I dont see the local liquor store selling grams of meth besides the aculpoco gold thats one of the main benefiots of legalization from the health standpoint. The human race has been using mind altering substances for many thousands of years and the worse effect of most illegal drugs is the fact that they are illegal not the use of the substance its self. Legal drugs would be better regulated and less likely to be adulterated and quality and strength could be monitored.
Tax revenues will be out of the ballpark I dont believe any of the use estimates we hear Marijuana is illegal! many people arent going to admit they use it so the estimates are skewed If marijuana is the top cash crop in every state where its grown and its being brought in from Canada and Mexico so whos smoking it all? Three million smokers in Calif! please I would not be suprised to find that closer to
30% of the adult population smokes. Everyone I know knows someoone who smokes and many people know growers and I dont hang out with users it just comes upm in conversation. There are hydroponics stores all over the place people are buying hydro and grow lights to grow tomatoes! I know im preaching to the choir but dam this lying and distortion needs to stop law enforcment hang it up on the marijuana lets stop busting mellow smokers and go after those nasty thieveing violent meth users! Oh you say that would be dangerous they use guns and cook in explosive enviornments! oh yeah I forgot they have no assets to confiscate where most smokers are gainfully employed own homes pay taxes etc so they can feed the system having money to pay lawyers court fees and our assests can be confiscasted and sold to ad to the county coffers. Now i see why law enforcment would rather bust smokers.

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 11:10am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Codger (not verified)

CPOA President John Standish is on the wrong side of reality. This is the reality quote: "'alcohol" is a mind-altering addictive drug that robs you of memory, motivation and concentration." What is john`s experience w/ marijuana? Probably zero. What is john`s experience w/ alcohol? Probably a good bit. Marijuana is not addictive and it most certainly ain`t dangerous. Anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant of the facts.

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 12:06am Permalink
Smoking for 35 years (not verified)

Marijuana does not cause cancer. I want to see one study that says it does.
A GATE-WAY drug. How stupid are these people. You could say the same for beer or anything like that. Marijuana is not a gate-way drug. I have smoked for over 30 years, I have no crimminal history of drug abuse or anything.
It's about time the goverment who made " pot " illegal to run the mexicans from this country stopped this stupid law.
Marijuana will not ruin our country, our politicians are doing that. I started smoking as a recreation. Now I am disabiled and need Marijuana to help me live a normal life. I hate to call it a drug, for one, Not one person has ever Over dosed from Marijuana. NOT ONE. But you can Overdose from an Asprin.
As far as not wanting or having the desire to do anything because you smoke pot is another stupid statement. If you only knew how many very high profile sucessful people smoke this you would be surprised.
One more thing. I have had my license sense 16. Not one wreck, not one, and I smoke all the time everyday.
35 years I have smoked, I went to the doctor, he xrayed my lungs. He said I have great lungs. No breathing problems at all. Try that with Cigs. I don't smoke cigs, they will kill you.

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 12:05pm Permalink

An entire industry has grown up around marijuana, And I am not writing about the drug cartels or the Humboldt growers. The industry is law enforcement and the prison industry, which depends on marijuana and the entire drug war in order to thrive. According to the Drug War Clock, < > we have spent over 42 BILLION dollars to date this year on the War on Drugs, and counting. Is this an insane waste of money or not?

Think of the health care we could have, the kids we could send to college, the improvements in our schools. It is just plain nuts to spend this kind of money on a stupid "war" that we will never win. And that's the whole point. The drug war pays the salaries of hundreds of thousands of cops, prison guards, parole officers, the whole gamut of law enforcement, not to mention construction of new prisons at the expense of the education budget. So of course, law enforcement wants to continue this irrational public policy. It doesn't work for the public, but it sure as hell works for them. Pays their mortgages, puts food on the table, gets them a nice car in the driveway, sends their kids to college.

And judging from the corrupt cop stories this feature carries ever week, it wouldn't surprise me at all that it also buys many of them a little weed to smoke on the weekends as well.

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 1:08pm Permalink

Excuse me but I'm from the Netherlands, where the police is not actively involved in policy making, posturing, posing as scientists and doctors!

Police officers barely finished high school and they are now, and have been, involved in influencing the political process for many, many years. Does the police represent the people? or anthing else for that matter?

This is why changes are not forthcoming and will not because of illegal police presence in our democratic process.

The police needs to stay out of this because they are only in it for their own job protection!

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 1:40pm Permalink
Jean Boyd (not verified)

It is apparent that we have some cops, and profiteers of the drug war on one side and most of the educated public on the other. We have miles of information to prove that the profitable war against people of the world is destructive and in the interest of the few. Again, the cops state the obvious lies such as "drugs are scary" or "leads to whatever". We have all heard it too many times.
If the war is truly a 100 year war, then it will be over soon. I would rather be on the side of truth that will live on forever after the guns are gone. The people are tired of the War on Drugs. So move over Rover. Get on the good side.

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 3:49pm Permalink
Trogo (not verified)

I watched the whole hearing, and I gotta was interesting to say the least. The individuals on the side of prohibition almost only read some documents instead of engaging in some sort of informative discussion as the others did. In fact, it almost seemed like Scott Kirkland of the Ca Police Chiefs' Assoc. Task Force didn't want to be there, didn't care, and obviously has resentment towards the committee. It was also nice to see two of the prohibition supporters (includes Scott Kirkland) had to be told to stop providing their health effects data because the hearing was only meant to be informative for the political, economical, and judicial portions of legalization. That just makes me believe they were just rambling off the same script crap about the "dangers" of marijuana. Those people are such a joke!

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 3:01am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As I see it the only reason it could be considered a gateway drug is the establishment lies
to our children preaching how bad marijuana is then they try it and find out they been lied to
so if it was a lie what whats next bad propaganda

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 5:17am Permalink
Jim L (not verified)

I think all those that don't want it legal is because they don't have a clue the good this one plant can do for mankind , the uneducated people need to go to and get there education..
" said CPOA president John Standish. "Marijuana is a mind-altering addictive drug that robs you of memory, motivation, and concentration,"
come on!! and you think alcohol dosn't? matter of fack alcohol kills NO one ever died from marajuana .. Sara Simpson claimed. "When a recreational drug user backs over your four-year-old, you consider yourself a victim of violent crime" oh and if you were drunk and ran over a kid that wouldn't be a "violent crime"? come on open your eyes
"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',,, yet another uneducated Chief , it is proven that a person that smokes marajuana and tabacco has a 50% less chance of getting lung cancer then one that smokes tabacco alone , I bet meny of you didn't know that our own government holds 3 pantants on marajuana one is a nero protectant ( protects your brain aginst most nerve gas)
What a great idea ,, put our youth in juvie so we can teach them how to be run a gang ,, oh yes that so much safer then marajuana ,, you people shouldn't be allowed to run a house much a state but sadly we have the same boobs running our country prohibition didn't work on alcohol , why do they think it will on marajuana ? it isn't just making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 11:51am Permalink
Ethan Straffin (not verified)

Dear CPOA,

With all due respect, it may be time to put John Standish out to pasture. Any man who can, with a straight face, utter such nonsense as "Both marijuana and methamphetamine are equally critical problems" is not a man whom Californians should trust to influence law enforcement's priorities, especially given our state's ongoing economic crisis.

Mr. Standish should also be aware that the federal government's own Institute of Medicine demolished the "gateway drug" canard, with respect to marijuana, a full decade ago. Among other salient observations, the IoM pointed out that one of the few senses in which marijuana can be considered a "gateway drug" relates to its status as an illicit substance, which in turn causes it to be available from some of the same suppliers as the harder substances.

I would strongly encourage your leadership to sit down for a discussion at some point with, say, Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. They could only emerge the wiser.

Sincerely yours,

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 9:37pm Permalink
newageblues (not verified)

When you keep telling outright lies like this, you destroy your credibility. Your lies about medicinal marijuana, and your willingness to make MMJ users pawns in your jihad against recreational users, have played a big role in the increasing support for legalizing cannabis. Go to hell for the suffering you are causing patients being denied the best medicine available for them, but at the same time: Thanks!

Fri, 11/06/2009 - 11:08am Permalink

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