By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today’s market conditions and Obama’s laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes going on in America. The biggest of these is irreversible — the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers weaned on Woodstock and flower power.
“A whole generation didn’t know the difference between heroin and marijuana,” Nadelmann says. “That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn’t become drug addicts.”
On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?
“We’re looking at a perfect storm here,” says California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D–San Francisco), who emblemizes that new type of leader. A former stand-up comic, Ammiano spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight Ashbury, grooving to the Grateful Dead. Now 68, he is one of the most watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced in early 2009 that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.
Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano’s measure would remove cannabis from the state’s banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence. A state analysis projects annual revenues of $1.4 billion, a number that critics claim is inflated. That figure does not include the enormous amount of state and federal income and business taxes that would be paid by growers, retailers and their employees as part of a fully realized economic model.
According to the same state-budget analysis, the value of today’s annual marijuana harvest in California is $13.8 billion, making weed one of the state’s biggest export crops. The value of the nation’s entire pot harvest is $35.8 billion, according to the analysis. Since legalized medical cannabis is only a tiny fraction of the market and the dispensaries typically operate as nonprofits, almost no income tax is collected. Indeed, income-tax projections have rarely played a role in the debate over legalization, although that, too, appears to be changing, especially in cash-strapped California.
“Our economic situation is egregious,” says Ammiano, who plans to begin conducting hearings this month. “I think people have begun to take it seriously.”
If Ammiano’s bill fails — and many think it’s too much, too soon — pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot next November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old founder of Oaksterdam.
Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes at the three campuses: Los Angeles; Sebastopol, an hour north of San Francisco; and Oakland, where Lee just unveiled a three-story teaching facility.
The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered more than 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Lee says.
If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with both Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot.
“Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215,” Nadelmann says, referring to the 1996 medical-pot act. “We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It’s not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something’s possible.” Proposition 36, California’s 2000 initiative to favor drug treatment over jail time, was another example. “Once that passed, we started seeing queries from probably half the states over the following few years,” Nadelmann says.
Aftereffects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the West — especially in Oregon and Washington state. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended the annual “Hempfest” this past year in Seattle.
In otherwise conservative Colorado, advocates staged a massive smokers’ rally in Boulder, and voters are expected to weigh a statewide legalization measure in the next few years.
Whether the “devil weed” will ever play in Peoria is open to debate, but in October the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months, and pockets of support for pot have become evident in Missouri and elsewhere in the heartland.
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