Pot pioneers


Two serious bids to legalize marijuana in California are moving forward simultaneously. And while decisions won’t be made for months, both efforts have generated interest from around the world.

"We’re on the cover of Newsweek right now. We were on the cover of Fortune magazine a few weeks ago," said Salwa Ibrahim, a spokesperson for Oaksterdam University, based in downtown Oakland. "We’ve gotten attention from every continent on the planet — well, except Antarctica, I suppose."

Founded in 2007, Oaksterdam — a.k.a. "Cannabis College" — is a training school for the medical marijuana industry. It’s grown steadily since its inception, and expects to double its student body next year. OU is the driver behind a ballot initiative currently in circulation that would give counties the option to tax and regulate marijuana, permitting individuals to cultivate up to 25 square feet for personal consumption. Like alcohol, it would only be accessible to people 21 and older.

So far the campaign has collected 40 percent of the signatures needed to put the question to voters on the November 2010 ballot, and proponent Richard Lee, cofounder of OU, is confident that they’ll hit the threshold by Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Quintin Mecke, spokesperson for Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, has been fielding phone calls from journalists from around the world. Ammiano made headlines in February when he introduced Assembly Bill 390, legislation to legalize and tax marijuana statewide, reguutf8g it the same way as alcohol.

Ammiano’s proposal was presented at an informational hearing in Sacramento on Oct. 28, and could be formally considered by early January 2010.

"We’re really not pushing anything that’s not already socially accepted," Mecke said. According to a Field Poll released in April, 56 percent of Californians support legalization, a record high. Although consumption of marijuana peaked in the 1970s, polls at the time showed that public support for legalization never rose higher than around 25 percent.

Both Ammiano and Lee closely monitored public opinion before spearheading their efforts, and recognized a shift in the wind as public sentiment warmed and the Obama administration proved far more tolerant of state medical marijuana laws than its predecessor.

Proponents say the bitter economic climate is one reason the idea of legalization is getting more play than ever. Already the state’s largest cash crop, legalized marijuana carries a revenue potential of as much as $1.4 billion annually, a boon for California’s flagging economy, according to the Board of Equalization.

In Oakland, OU and its affiliated medical marijuana dispensaries seem to be flouting the economic trends of the day as a business that is gaining momentum rather than cutting corners. Lee says his ultimate goal is to place Oakland on the map as a West Coast version of Amsterdam.

Four dispensaries operating in downtown Oakland have already sparked a boost in tourism, creating an international buzz that draws visitors from afar. "One of Oakland’s big problems is something they call ‘leakage’ on the retail," Lee said. "And that is that Oakland residents don’t shop in Oakland. With cannabis … we have 60 percent from outside. We have ‘floodage’ instead of ‘leakage.’"

With the state facing an unprecedented budget shortfall, the revenue potential "happens to be the icing on the cake," Mecke said. He said Ammiano’s primary reason for introducing the legislation is that "the prohibition model has failed." Studies have found the drug to be safer than alcohol (there are no documented deaths associated with an overdose of marijuana consumption, and it’s been proven to have medicinal value), Mecke points out. Meanwhile, marijuana-related arrests are on the rise, and precious public dollars allocated for law enforcement are badly needed to combat other kinds of criminal activity, he says.

"Several tens of millions of dollars" could be saved annually in correctional costs by reducing the number of marijuana-related offenders serving jail sentences, according to a report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office that was presented at the informational hearing. The LAO also found that legalizing marijuana could result in a "major reduction" in state and local law enforcement costs.

Lee’s personal story is interlinked with the law-enforcement argument for legalization. In 1991, while living in Texas, he became the victim of a carjacking. "It took the police 45 minutes to respond," he said. "That’s what really made me mad. I blamed the lack of police protection on the fact that the police were wasting their time looking for people like me and my friends instead of the real sociopaths and predators out there."
Yet if testimony at the informational hearing was any indication, most of the law-enforcement community doesn’t hold the same viewpoint.

"I have seen nothing good come of this," John Standish, president of the California Peace Officers’ Association, said. Standish told Ammiano he believes the potential tax revenues would be far outweighed by costs associated with marijuana-related medical treatments, dangers linked with drugged driving, and worker absences.

Others associated with law enforcement expressed concern that the legalization would make it easier for minors to obtain marijuana. Sara Simpson, speaking on behalf of the California Office of the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, emphasized the rise of armed Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) conducting growing operations on California public lands. "We believe regulation of marijuana will have little effect on illegal DTOs," she noted.

Jim Gray, a retired judge who testified at the hearing, took the opposite view. "The only way you put these Mexican drug cartels out of business is to undercut the price, and AB390 is a really good place to start," he said. "Today our marijuana laws are putting our children in harm’s way. It is easier for young people to get marijuana than it is to get alcohol."

The wild card for any move toward legalization, meanwhile, is federal law. The drug remains illegal under federal statutes, so the success of any tax-and-regulate experiment would depend on whether the feds were willing to tolerate legalized recreational use of the controlled substance, as it has for medical purposes. "California could be out of the gate early if in fact there is a change in federal law," Ammiano pointed out at the hearing. At the same time, if legalization is approved and federal law remains unchanged, the state policy could be thrown into question in the future under a change in administration.

"Change doesn’t happen unless states take a stand on something," Mecke said. "Given the success with medical marijuana, we don’t think it’s a stretch to continue the push for recreational use. We think it’s reflective of public sentiment and public interest. It’s good public policy as well."

Lee, for his part, simply believes that laws prohibiting marijuana are unjust and should be repealed. "I’m really kind of conservative," he said as he sat just yards away from OU’s horticulture room, where two students were busy trimming the pungent herb. "Basically I like the police, and the laws, and people who respect them and obey them. But when you make laws that are totally ridiculous and hypocritical and unfair … we have to get rid of those laws."