Legal-Marijuana Advocates Focus on a New Green
By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: March 25, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — Perhaps only in California could a group of marijuana smokers call themselves fiscal realists.
Supporters of a ballot measure that would tax and regulate marijuana in California say it could raise $1.4 billion a year.
And yet, faced with a $20 billion deficit, strained state services and regular legislative paralysis, voters in California are now set to consider a single-word solution to help ease some of the state’s money troubles: legalize.
On Wednesday, the California secretary of state certified a November vote on a ballot measure that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, a plan that advocates say could raise $1.4 billion and save precious law enforcement and prison resources.
Indeed, unlike previous efforts at legalization — including a failed 1972 measure in California — the 2010 campaign will not dwell on assertions of marijuana’s harmlessness or its social acceptance, but rather on cold cash.
“We need the tax money,” said Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, a trade school for marijuana growers, in Oakland, who backed the ballot measure’s successful petition drive. “Second, we need the tax savings on police and law enforcement, and have that law enforcement directed towards real crime.”
Supporters are hoping to raise $10 million to $20 million for the campaign, primarily on the Internet, with national groups planning to urge marijuana fans to contribute $4.20 at a time, a nod to 420, a popular shorthand for the drug.
The law would permit licensed retailers to sell up to one ounce at a time. Those sales would be a new source of sales tax revenue for the state.
Opponents, however, scoff at the notion that legalizing marijuana could somehow help with the state’s woes. They tick off a list of social ills — including tardiness and absenteeism in the workplace — that such an act would contribute to.
“We just don’t think any good is going to come from this,” said John Standish, president of the California Peace Officers Association, whose 3,800 members include police chiefs and sheriffs. “It’s not going to better society. It’s going to denigrate it.”
The question of legalization, which a 2009 Field Poll showed 56 percent of Californians supporting, will undoubtedly color the state race for governor. The two major Republican candidates — the former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and the insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner — have said they oppose the bill.
Jerry Brown, the Democratic attorney general who is also running for governor, opposes the idea as well, saying it violates federal law.
And while the Obama administration has signaled that it will tolerate medical marijuana users who abide the law in the 14 states where it is legal, a law authorizing personal use would conflict with federal law.
Supporters of the bill say the proposal’s language would allow cities or local governments to opt out, likely creating “dry counties” in some parts of the state. The proposed law would allow only those over 21 to buy, and would ban smoking marijuana in public or around minors.
Stephen Gutwillig, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that plans to raise money in favor of the measure, said he expected “a conservative implementation,” if passed.
“I think most local jurisdictions are not going to authorize sales,” Mr. Gutwillig said.
Local opt-out provisions are part of a strategy to allay people’s fears about adding another legal vice and to help capture a group considered key to passing the bill: non-pot-smoking swing voters.
“There’s going to be a large sector of the electorate that would never do this themselves that’s going to sort out what the harm would be versus what the supposed good would be,” said Frank Schubert, a longtime California political strategist who opposes the bill. “That’s where the election is going to be won.”
But Dan Newman, a San Francisco-based strategist for the ballot measure, said he expected broad, bipartisan support for the bill, especially among those Californians worried about the recession.
“Voters’ No. 1 concern right now is the budget and the economy,” Mr. Newman said, “which makes them look particularly favorable at something that will bring in more than $1 billion a year.” Opponents, however, question that figure — which is based on a 2009 report from the Board of Equalization, which oversees taxes in the state — and argue that whatever income is brought in will be spent dealing with more marijuana-related crimes.
Mr. Standish said: “We have a hard enough time now with drunk drivers on the road. This is just going to add to the problems.”
He added: “I cannot think of one crime scene I’ve been to where people said, ‘Thank God the person was just under the influence of marijuana.’ ”
Advocates of the measure plan to counter what is expected to be a strong law enforcement opposition with advertisements like one scheduled to be broadcast on radio in San Francisco and Los Angeles starting on Monday. The advertisements will feature a former deputy sheriff saying the war on marijuana has failed.
“It’s time to control it,” he concludes, “and tax it.”
Not everyone in the community is supportive. Don Duncan, a co-founder of Americans for Safe Access, which lobbies for medical marijuana, said he had reservations about the prospect of casual users joining the ranks of those with prescriptions.
“The taxation and regulation of cannabis at the local or state level may or may not improve conditions for medical cannabis patients,” Mr. Duncan said in an e-mail message. He added that issues like “police harassment and the price and quality of medicine might arise if legalization for recreational users occurs.”
Still, the idea of legal marijuana does not seem too far-fetched to people like Shelley Kutilek, a San Francisco resident, loyal church employee and registered California voter, who said she would vote “yes” in November.
“It’s no worse than alcohol,” said Ms. Kutilek, 30, an administrator at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. “Drunk people get really belligerent. I don’t know anybody who gets belligerent on marijuana. They just get chill.”