Newly-elected California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has hit the ground running in Sacramento. Not three months into his tenure, he “sparked” controversy on Monday by introducing an assembly bill (AB 390 The Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act) to legalize all forms of marijuana.
The state, along with Vermont and a select few others, has long been seen as a progressive force pushing the envelope in many different areas, from gay marriage to universal healthcare (recently failed due to the state’s poor economic health) to medical marijuana itself. This newest development is a logical extension of the medical marijuana debate, not only because of the subject itself but also because of its similar “Federalist vs. States’ Rights” antagonism.
The Bill and Its Breakdown
AB 390 removes all marijuana and marijuana derivatives from mention in the various sections of the Health and Safety Code and Drug Schedule. Although the drug would be legal, it still would be regulated and monitored, now not for punitive goals but for economic reasons. Any products containing marijuana or instruments used in conjunction with it would need to be behind a counter and kept in a secure manner. Usage would be limited to those 21 years of age and up. The monitoring aspect of this scenario is actually the main selling point because it is where the tax money comes from.
The potential windfalls from this piece of legislation are huge. It creates a much needed revenue stream while reducing costs in other key areas of the state budget. Especially in California, where our budget has taken a colossal beating from the deflation of home prices, it is a much needed salve.
Assemblyman Ammiano believes the tax revenue gained on this product would pass $1 billion a year for the state. A $50 tax on an ounce of weed with an average price of $430 is nothing to scoff at. This would easily be one of the highest-taxed products around.
In addition, it would lower prison populations by releasing non-violent marijuana offenders, reducing related prison housing/operating expenses from the state budget. It would also improve job quality for prison guards by easing overcrowding (which has shown to be the number one reason for prison fights and riots). In the cities and towns it would lessen burdens on narcotics officers who no longer would be looking for marijuana offenses and instead could concentrate on more serious and harmful crimes. The ensuing shrinkage in the number of drug cases going before state judges would free up much needed space on the court dockets. Additionally, it would remove weed from street dealers coffers. Why pay such a mark-up and put yourself in a dicey situation when you can go down to the local Walgreen’s and pick some up? Wins all around.
The other side of the argument is not quite as cut and dry as “It saves/makes us money”. This is unknown territory for the government. It still is a controlled substance and has potential for misuse and abuse. There is also the issue of legality and enforcement in light of over-arcing federal laws.
There are no standards, precedents, best practices to work from as a model for this new direction. As such, rolling out a whole system from scratch is not something that our government has shown it can do in a proficient manner. How do you take an underground industry and push it into the mainstream? We didn’t do so well shoving alcohol into the Prohibition arena and we didn’t do so well transitioning out of it. The positive thinkers have envisioned a system where pouches of marijuana reside peacefully next to tins of Skoal and packs of Marlboros at your local Quik Stop. Maybe it will be that easy. We don’t know.
It is a narcotic substance, and as such, needs to be treated accordingly. Provisions have been made in the bill to provide for drug education and abuse prevention programs. It just seems ridiculous: use tax revenue from marijuana sales to fund marijuana abuse prevention is no solution. Although the government does fund various alcohol-abuse related ventures all while drawing enormous sums of money from makers, distributors, establishments and drinkers themselves, the status quo may not be the best perch from which to judge.
As proponents and supporters of Prop 215 have found, even when Californians say “yes”, the government can still say “no” and win. Medical marijuana dispensaries have been dealing with contradictory state and federal mandates since 1996. Although approved for use in the state, they have consistently been hassled, raided, monitored, closed down by federal drug agents since the beginning.
UPDATE: New Attorney General Eric Holder just reiterated to the Washington Press that President Obama’s campaign promises to curtail DEA raids on certified medical marijuana dispensaries will be followed. It hopefully should remove some of the contradictory actions and messages between the states and the federal government as to who is in charge of this particular issue.
The Big Finish
California is in financial dire straights. As the 10th largest economy in the world, it faces a $40 billion budget shortfall in the next year. The Governor has already terminated so many budget items that he is really getting down to the bone. The state needs a new tax source. The marijuana industry in California is a huge ripe fruit just waiting to be plucked. Will it pass? Highly unlikely. But the fact that we’re even considering something like this shows either A) people are finally getting over “Reefer Madness” or B) the economy is that bad politicians are getting desperate. Does anybody think there may be a “Legalize (And Then Payroll Tax) Prostitution” movement next?