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

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #616)
Consequences of Prohibition

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


ChristianB (not verified)

Everyday I want to move Cali even more!

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 2:15pm Permalink
BullHubbard (not verified)

In reply to by ChristianB (not verified)

The move would be ill-advised. California is a sinking ship and the rats are scurrying down the lines. Any passage of a "tax-and-regulate" bill would be done as a desperate measure to reduce the uncontrollable state deficit. It is a sign of desperation rather than progress, similar to the recent Garage Sale of the Orange County Fairgrounds. Don't get me wrong, I am in favor of freeing cannabis, but given the current political situation, including the recalcitrant idiots who came out against the legislation, California is definitely NOT a place to want to live. Unless you're rich, of course.

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 2:51pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

"Don't we have enough trouble with the two legal drugs?"

Now that the "marijuana debate" is launched, it's the long-awaited opportunity for proposals regarding how, in the new context, to regulate the "two legal drugs".

1. Once cannabis is legal, vaporizers and one-hitters will also be legal, and both can be used to remove psychodisorientative heat shock and carbon monoxide "confounding factors" not only from cannabis but from genocidal scourge $igarette tobackgo. It's time to promise citizens and legislatures that, once the Ammiano measure passes, at cafes, festivals, marches and other quasi-legal venues harm-reduction equipment will be exhibited and demonstrated for the benefit of all smokers, i.e. of cannabis, tobackgo, coca-leaf, salvia, oregano, peppermint or whatever. Mini-dosage apostles will swarm out like Mormons and Witnesses armed with literature and sifted-herb demo-tokes to eliminate the most dangerous drug application device in history, hot burning overdose $igarette papers, from human memory. Objective: ten years from now no one will remember what it was like to live in a world dominated by $igarettes, gun homicides, bombings and hatefearteasing.

2. Downdosage extended to alcohol:

a. Boozefree vaperparties with virtuoso group handworking projects (gardening, carpentry etc.) will take the place of binge-drinking.

b. Beer or wine will be something rich, dark and strong-tasting that you take an occasional sip of from a beautifully illustrated little aluminum pakbox shaped like an old-fashioned $igarette-pack carried in your shirt pocket. A plastic aledropper will be used to refill it now and then. Alternatively neat little airliner bottles with up to 200-ml. will be marketed.

c. "Hard liquors" will be marketed in snap-off ampules which after use can be collected and glued into gleaming art structures.

3. Speaking ignorantly as a non-user, it seems to me heroin and cocaine are mainly painkillers. The inadequately understood strategy with cannabis, on the other hand, is not to kill the pain but to understand it, and help the sufferer understand, learn and enjoy the subtle internal exercise arts, both muscular and intellectual, which address the underlying causes of the pain.

Any craving for "dope" is a confession that one is an extreme sufferer, and thus can benefit from combination therapy including exercise, artistic self-expression, compassionate human-touch massage and verbal-message counseling. Opiates should be prescribed short-term as an emergency measure to prevent suicide, while a rational pro-active occupation therapy is developed.

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 3:15pm Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by maxwood (not verified)

I like most of your comments, but I really don't know here you make the decision that should be made by the doctors treating chronic pain patients with opiates. Just like many doctors in practice, you think one treatment fits all. It does not. Most chronic pain patients do fine on long term opiates, with extremely small risk for addiction. Add in physical therapy and psychological help, tailored to their needs, and the patients get what they want. RELIEF! There is already enough restriction between the doctor /patient relationship, in our country, now.

The biggest problem in doctors' offices that use high dose opiates is the criminals that want to just make a profit by illegally obtaining, then selling, the medications (buy hydrocodone for .25 a pill and sell it for $6.00 / pill you do the math. I think it is the drug war that causes this!).

So , let's blame the legitimate chronic pain patients and their doctors!?...... ) ; P

We don't need a bunch of, mislead, uneducated, people doing the same thing the uneducated politicians have already done!

The losers are chronic pain patients and their, hero, doctors! The doctor is throw in in jail, patients put out on the street and the prosecutors act like what they did was a "humanitarian" act!? What they did was submit another portion of the populace to unneeded suffering!

Guess what?! The rules made by the government are going to get worse when they control us even more rules through the "new" medical legislation! It is nothing new! Just more of the same! Restrict,.... restrict,..... restrict!

Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:52pm Permalink
Kurt Sperry (not verified)

It strikes me as completely inappropriate for uniformed police officers to be present except as security where policy decisions are being discussed. Police are paid to implement policy in an official capacity, not to take or promote political positions.

Were the uniformed police present on paid duty? If so, is it appropriate to be paying our police to function as self-appointed political lobbyists on the taxpayer's dime? And if they were not on-duty, why were they allowed as private citizens to represent themselves as agents of the state and use the powerful symbolic power of their uniforms to promote a partisan political agenda? Could they not express their opinions as citizens, just as anyone else does at such a public hearing without trying to connivingly cloak their regressive and unenlightened policy position in the mantle of state authority?

This strikes me as so shockingly blatant an abuse of police authority it astonishes me that it apparently passed unchallenged.

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 3:37pm Permalink

The cartels put one Helluva lot of money into political campaign coffers, because, sad to say, most politicians are short sighted and can see no farther than the next reelection.
Prohibitions do not work. It simply gives it a cachet that it did not have before.
I'm for total legalization.
Law enforcement cannot be trusted in this. Law enforcement is an addict, itself. Heavily addicted to unconstitutional theft of property, without conviction. The proceeds from that have created a law enforcement establishment that cannot survive in its current form without that ill gotten gains.
I say legalise, and do it quickly!

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 3:44pm Permalink
Jean Boyd (not verified)

The police that are still against legalization of drugs are motivated by greed and power. They know that their job descriptions will change. There will be no money to gain from users and dealers. However; some in law enforcement realize that the war on drugs is wrong and that good citizens are being hurt every day by the very people who are sworn in to help them. It is only in a desperate society that you can find individuals to actually take these jobs. I believe that many cops are relieved that marijuana is soon to be legalized and they will be able to get on with the real job of keeping the peace.

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 7:08pm Permalink
Russ Nichols (not verified)

Seems to me laws against marijuana make it more expensive and leave sales in the hands of criminals. More expensive because of the relative scarcity of it because it is illegal. Make it legal and criminals no longer have exclusive distribution rights because by definition it is not a criminal act to sell it. Besides that, marijuana is so easy to grow, that many people would no longer be buying it. I think the cops see the war on drugs as job security. Billions are spent on nabbing low level dealers and buyers. THose billions go into police paychecks.

Sat, 01/16/2010 - 4:23pm Permalink
AAnonymous (not verified)

It is far too obvious to me that the people who are against legalization refuse to explore the facts that have been gathered over the past 70+ years. They have never bothered to read the LaGuardia reoport or any of the other research that has been done. I am very disappointed that law enforcement continues to support locking up the people who buy marijuana instead of emptying out the prisons to hold the truly dangerous people living here. I do not know how many news reports I have seen that say a rapist, arsonist, or other seriously bad criminal was released because the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of marijuana meant that that person had to be locked up and there was not room for both. It is scary that the police chief of San Mateo thinks that cannabis is a very addictive drug and causes teen sex. As we all know, it is not addictive, since while you can become dependent on it you do not go through withdrawals if you stop and you will not suffer harm without it. As for causing teen sex, she should know that the main cause for that is parents not paying attention to their children and the amount of television exposure of sex. How many shows are there out there right now that seem to support teen sex? Several on MTV for certain. You might just as well ban discussion of sex, I'll bet that you would see a serious rise in teen pregnancies as the kids would have even less of an idea of what not to do than most of them have today.

Thank you for letting me rant a bit.

Sun, 01/17/2010 - 12:59am Permalink
Wilbur (not verified)

Has anyone on this forum read this bill? Do you know that its whole reason for being is that it wants to get $50 an ounce in tax on it? Do you realize how outrageously expensive that is? It will put marijuana out of the hands of the average person, particularly the very people who have come to rely on it now and get it much, much cheaper as medical marijuana.

Sun, 01/17/2010 - 9:55am Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Wilbur (not verified)

I don't buy that! The price would go down, so the tax would be the main cost. I don't know anyone who is giving $14 an ounce, as in one comment I have seen here today!! Try $200 for the cheap stuff! I have seen the price, in my study on the Internet, even higher in the big cities! I am sure, when it is legal, that the coverage for the poor will be made through the Medicaid and Medicare insurance programs, until they go broke! I personally, don't think it will be much of a burden to pay, for most, with, even, a small income!

Mon, 01/18/2010 - 4:26pm Permalink

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