In a nutshell, here's what the bill would do: "Remove all penalties under California law for the cultivation, transportation, sale, purchase, possession, and use of marijuana, natural THC and paraphernalia by persons over the age of 21," "prohibit local and state law enforcement officials from enforcing federal marijuana laws (more on that later)" and establish a fee of $50 an ounce on marijuana on top of whatever pot will cost in a legal future -- which legalization advocates say is about half what it costs now. This tax rate figures at about a buck a joint.
Betty Yee, the chairwoman of the Board of Equalization, called Ammiano's proposal "a responsible measure on how to work out the regulatory framework of the legalization of marijuana." Her board's research indicated $1.3 billion in tax dollars could immediately head into the state's coffers from the fee on marijuana and the sales tax on medical pot. She figured the halving of marijuana's street price would cause a consumption increase of 40 percent, but the $50 per ounce levy would cut use by 11 percent.
Steve Gutwillig, the state director of Drug Policy Alliance, noted that regulatory measures like Ammiano's bill can work: Teen smoking is way down, and he claims juveniles report it is easier to obtain marijuana than purchase smokes. "Marijuana arrests actually increased 18 percent in California in 2007 while all other arrests for controlled substances fell," he said. "This costs the state a billion dollars a year and taxpayers are footing the bill. Meanwhile, black marketers are laughing all the way to the bank."
But the morning's most forceful speaker was Judge James P. Gray, who retired from his 25-year post on the Orange County Superior Court six weeks ago. With his gray suit, tasseled loafers, and conservative salt-and-pepper haircut, he looked like central casting's offering for "Republican candidate for higher office." Not surprisingly, Gray did run as a Republican for Congress against Bob Dornan and Loretta Sanchez and Senate vs. Bill Jones and Barbara Boxer. He now says he's "not a politician -- and I have the votes to prove it."
"I served 25 years on the bench and I've seen the results of this attempted prohibition. It doesn't make marijuana less available, but it does clog the court system," he said.
"The stronger we get on marijuana, the softer we get with regard to all other prosecutions because we have only so many resources. And we at this moment, have thousands of people in state prison right this minute who did nothing but smoke marijuana."
Gray noted that anyone who tokes up while out on parole can immediately be sent right back to prison, at great cost to the taxpayers.
"You and I as adults can go home tonight and drink 10 martinis. It's not a healthy thing to do but it's not illegal. Someone who smokes marijuana and goes to bed risks jail," continued the judge. "I don't smoke marijuana and if you legalized it today and gave it away at every street corner I'm still not going to. But the most harmful thing about marijuana today is prison - and also the most expensive. I take President Obama at his word - he said let's look at what's working and what is not, and jettison those programs that are not working."
Obama also wrote in his autobiography that he did "a little blow" and Ammiano is hopeful the new president will look upon this issue differently than his predecessor (it warrants mentioning that those fighting against torture and rendition also hoped that - and were disappointed).
Ammiano told SF Weekly that he doesn't expect his bill to pass "overnight," but doesn't see it as merely a "placeholder." As far as superseding federal law, he pointed to a similar bill recently introduced in Congress by Rep. Barney Frank; hopefully the law of the land will change. If not, Ammiano hoped to exploit "fuzziness" regarding state and federal laws and the low priority this state has given to busting marijuana users entitled by Proposition 215.
He predicted that, in these dire economic times, "support will fall all over" for his bill.
Perhaps, perhaps not. But this much is certain: If Ammiano pulls this off, there's a place for him reserved on the Mount Rushmore of Pot Gods, right between Cheech, Chong, and Bob Marley.