Dagga debate in California hots up

2010-03-26 09:30

Now that a proposal to legalise pot is on the ballot in California,

well-organised groups are lining up on both sides of the debate. And it’s not

just tie-dyed hippies versus anti-drug crusaders.

So far, the most outspoken groups on the issue are those affiliated

with California’s legal medical marijuana industry and law enforcement officials

who vehemently oppose any loosening of drug laws.

But the campaign that unfolds before the November election could

yield some unusual allies: free-market libertarians joining police officers

frustrated by the drug war to support the measure, and pot growers worried about

falling prices pairing with Democratic politicians to oppose it.

Others believe legalising and taxing the drug could improve the

state’s flagging economy.

“We spend so much time, our police do, chasing around these

non-violent drug offenders, we don’t have time anymore to protect our people

from murders and child molesters,” said Jack Cole, president of Law Enforcement

Against Prohibition, a group that plans to champion the California proposal

between now and the election.

The initiative, also known as the “Tax Cannabis Act,” received

enough signatures this week to qualify for the November ballot.

If it is approved, California would become the first state to

legalise marijuana for recreational use by adults.

The measure would also give local governments the authority to

regulate and tax pot sales.

According to campaign finance records, nearly all of the more than

$1.3 million spent on the campaign to qualify the question for the ballot came

from businesses controlled by the proposal’s main backer, Oakland medical

marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee.

Lee operates a medical marijuana dispensary and cafe in downtown

Oakland and is the founder of Oaksterdam University, which trains people to run

their own medical marijuana businesses.

According to the school, more than 5 000 students have completed

their programs.

The largest donations from an individual not connected to the

marijuana business came from George Zimmer, founder and chief executive of the

men’s clothing chain Men’s Wearhouse.

Television viewers know Zimmer as the Fremont-based company’s

longtime pitchman in commercials.

But he is also known as a longtime supporter of efforts to

liberalise the nation’s drug laws.

Opponents contend that the legalisation effort will pit a few

wealthy individuals against regular Californians who will provide the

groundswell needed to defeat the measure.

“You have rich dilettantes who want to legalise drugs and ordinary

people who consider the ramifications of legalisation on their communities and

their families,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist representing several law

enforcement groups opposed to the initiative.

Lovell pointed to the lopsided defeat of a 2008 ballot issue that

would have pushed treatment instead of prison for drug offenders as a sign of

voters’ leanings.

Supporters of the measure heavily outspent opponents, but it was

defeated 59 to 41 percent.

The anti-legalisation campaign has not reported any contributions

yet, but workers are reviewing what they believe are major flaws with the ballot


They say the proposed law would allow pot to be grown in public

parks and fail to prevent people with prior drug convictions from selling


Meanwhile, some well-known liberals have come out against it,

including the state’s presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney

General Jerry Brown.

Brown, who was seen in the 1970s as an icon of California’s

counterculture, told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month that he was

“not going to jump on the legalisation bandwagon.”

“We’re going to get a vote of the people soon on that, but I’m not

going to support it,” he said.

Legalised marijuana in California, the nation’s most populous

state, would represent a sea change in the nation’s drug laws and put the state

in direct conflict with the federal government because pot is still illegal in

the eyes of federal officials.

Yesterday, a Department of Justice spokeswoman said it was too soon

to speculate on whether federal authorities would sue to keep the measure from

becoming law.

The administration relaxed its prosecution guidelines for medical

marijuana last year, but President Barack Obama’s drug czar has said the White

House strongly opposes any efforts to legalise pot.

“Marijuana legalisation, for any purpose, remains a non-starter in

the Obama administration,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National

Drug Control Policy, said last year. “It is not something that the president and

I discuss. It isn’t even on the agenda.”

California in 1996 became the first of the 14 states that have

legalised medicinal marijuana.

Many jurisdictions around the country have also decriminalised

marijuana to the point that low-level possession offenses are not


States such as California and Colorado have also been struggling to

deal with an explosion in the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in recent

years, a trend that has made pot readily available to the public.

A decision by California to legalise pot could lend momentum to the

entire legalisation movement, just like its historic 1996 law did for medical


Legislators in Rhode Island are considering a plan to decriminalise

pot, and a group in Nevada is pushing an initiative that marks the state’s

fourth attempt in a decade to legalise the drug.

Lawmakers in Washington state recently killed a plan to legalise

the sale and use of marijuana, though lawmakers there did expand the pool of

medical professionals who could prescribe the drug for medicinal use.

The ballot measure in California would allow people 21 years and

older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, enough for dozens of joints.

Residents also could grow their own crop of the plant in gardens measuring up to

25 square feet.

The proposal would ban users from using marijuana in public or

smoking it while minors are present.

It also would make it illegal to possess the drug on school grounds

or drive while under its influence.

Proponents of the measure say legalising marijuana could save the

state $200 million a year by reducing public safety costs.

At the same time, it could generate tax revenue for local


Law enforcement officials are promising a vigorous fight to ensure

that marijuana never becomes legal in California.

They believe legalised

marijuana would increase crime and violence, deepen the nation’s drug culture

and lead teenagers to abuse pot.

The California Police Chiefs Association, Mothers Against Drunk

Driving and groups such as the youth-oriented Drug Abuse Resistance Education

also plan to oppose the idea.

Not everyone in law enforcement is opposed to the measure,


“We believe by voting for that initiative you can actually save

lives,” Cole said.


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