Even as the battle rages over medical marijuana in Orange County, activists and advocates in California are busy gathering signatures to get as many as three different pot-legalization initiatives on the 2010 ballot.
If one of these initiatives passes, California would become the first state to legalize marijuana and impose a tax on it, a move proponents say could help get the state out of an unprecedented budget crisis.
So far, there are three known initiatives that propose legalizing marijuana. One is the California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative, which would make use of all cannabis hemp legal for industrial, nutritional, medicinal, religious and recreational purposes.
The other is the California Cannabis Initiative, which would make marijuana legal for medicinal and recreational purposes.
And yet another initiative, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, would allow adults 21 and older in California to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and give local governments the ability to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older -- just like alcohol.
Proponents of these initiatives hope that at least one will get on the 2010 ballot. They say the time is ripe for change as Sacramento battles budgetary woes and an increasing number of Californians and Americans are showing support to legalize pot. Supporters say sales tax from marijuana would rake in at least $1 billion in revenue for the state.
A Zogby Poll earlier this year found that 52 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. The same poll found that six out of 10 people in California favored pot legalization.
Support to legalize marijuana has been finding steady support among Americans over the years. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in August 2001 found 34 percent favored legalizing marijuana use. That was the most support for legalization since pollsters began asking the question in 1969. According to the USA Today report, the support for legalization had been constant at about 25 percent for 20 years before the USA Today poll recorded an increase to 31 percent in August 2000 and 34 percent in August 2001.
Joseph Rogoway, a San Francisco criminal defense lawyer who formerly practiced in Orange County, is one of the key proponents of the California Cannabis Initiative. He contends the people of California are ready to vote on this controversial matter, given the snowballing support over the years.
"I can tell simply from the overwhelmingly positive support we've been getting not only from San Francisco, but across the state," he said. "Recent polling shows that the people of this state support legalization of marijuana."
Rogoway also cites a State Board of Equalization report, which estimates that taxing marijuana sales in California could rake in $1 billion a year in sales tax revenue.
Along with fellow defense attorneys James Clark and Omar Figueroa, Rogoway believes that making pot legal is the solution to preventing crimes involving the drug.
"Our initiative is the best way to keep marijuana away from children because you treat it like alcohol," he said. "You regulate the distribution and sale of marijuana. Right now this market is unregulated and completely ruled by the drug cartels."
Also, as a defense attorney, Rogoway said he wants to stop defending those accused of possessing marijuana.
"It's a waste of precious resources," he said. "This initiative, if passed, is going to save the state millions in criminal justice expenditure."
But a majority of law enforcement officials have a different viewpoint. Garden Grove police Chief Joseph Polisar says that legalizing marijuana would become a problem for local law enforcement members, who would be caught between state law and a federal law that says it's illegal. Polisar strongly recommended to the Garden Grove City Council that they pass an ordinance banning all medical marijuana clinics, saying they are a breeding ground for crime.
Under federal law, marijuana is illegal, period. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that federal law enforcement agents have the right to crack down even on marijuana users and distributors who are in compliance with California's medical marijuana law. Law enforcement officials such as Polisar fear that if marijuana is legalized in California, it could set the stage for a groundbreaking clash with the federal government over U.S. drug policy.
Polisar says legalizing marijuana is going to make his job of interpreting the law harder. And it won't solve anything, he says.
"It's the same as if you try to legalize prostitution," he said. "Even if it's made legal, there will still be a stigma attached to it. People are still going to seek out drug dealers in street corners instead of going to a pharmacy and purchasing marijuana with their credit cards."
Besides, marijuana is a "gateway drug," Polisar says.
"Activists are merely using the budgetary crisis as an excuse to legally use narcotics," he said.
Federal officials have consistently tightened marijuana regulations over the years. That did not change until several states, with California leading the way in 1996, passed initiatives legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
The use of marijuana was regulated in every state through The Uniform State Narcotic Act in the mid 1930s. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the United States under federal law, excluding medical and industrial uses, in which an expensive excise tax was mandated.
The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 made first-time cannabis possession an offense with a minimum of two to 10 years imprisonment and fines of up to $20,000. However, the U.S. Congress repealed mandatory penalties for marijuana-related offenses in 1970.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 regulated the prescribing and dispensing of psychoactive drugs including stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. This act lists five categories of restricted drugs. This law classified cannabis as having a high potential for abuse, no medical use and not safe to use under medical supervision.
On Nov. 5, 1996, California residents passed Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which legalized the medical use of marijuana in the state.
Despite Prop. 215, the law is still murky. Individual cities still have the power to decide whether they want these dispensaries in their communities. Orange County cities such as Garden Grove have imposed bans on medical marijuana dispensaries. Some others such as Laguna Woods have allowed dispensaries to open and operate in their cities. The Lake Forest City Council recently initiated action to shut down 14 dispensaries in the interest of public safety.
Still, many Southern California activists believe that the solution lies in legalizing not just marijuana, but the entire cannabis plant, which has a wide variety of uses. Industrial hemp, which comes from the cannabis plant, is used to make a wide range of products, from diapers to handbags.
Buddy Duzy, a Simi Valley resident who is raising money for the California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative, says their proposal will make use of all cannabis hemp legal for industrial, nutritional, medicinal, religious and recreational purposes.
"I think the timing is good for this type of an initiative because Californians now understand the true value of the plant," he said. "We believe the time is ripe to bring this issue to voters."
.While other initiatives would limit the cultivation and use of cannabis, this initiative would make the cannabis plant completely legal and "a non-issue," Duzy said.
"It'll be no different than any other crop like corn or wheat," he said.
La Habra resident and activist Jason Andrews says he is ready to become the local hemp farmer in a heartbeat. Andrews cultivates marijuana in his home as part of a medical marijuana cooperative.
"As a patient, I felt that the prices being charged at medical marijuana clinics were atrocious," he said. "So I started growing my own and it's legal in California, thanks to Proposition 215."
Andrews says he started using and cultivating marijuana for medical purposes after he was injured in a car accident five years ago.
"I got strung out on prescription pills," he said. "With marijuana, there are no side effects, just relief."
However, marijuana cooperatives are treated as nonprofits and therefore exempt from tax, Andrews says.
"That's ridiculous," he says. "Marijuana should be taxed and that could provide valuable revenue for the state."
Still, legislators balk at the idea of making what's listed as a "narcotic" on the federal schedule of drugs legal just so it can be taxed, although marijuana advocates maintain that taxing pot can solve the state's budgetary problems.
Assemblyman Van Tran said he will not support legalizing marijuana.
"First, I'm against taxing products and services as a means to raise revenue," he said. "Secondly, I'm against legalizing marijuana because I believe it's a gateway drug and will lead to serious public safety issues at the local level."
The best way to solve the budget crisis is by streamlining government and reducing waste, not raising taxes, Tran said.
"We need a fundamental change in California," he said. "We definitely do not need to legalize marijuana to solve our money problems."
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