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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Crime

Claudia Cowan

San Francisco, CA

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Going To Pot: CA’s Legalization Initiative

June 24, 2010 - 9:45 AM | by: Claudia Cowan

Fourteen years after approving medical marijuana and starting a trend followed by 13 other states, California may soon become the first state to legalize pot for “recreational” use for the over-21 set. The private use of pot opens a whole new set of doors, and well before election day, powerful forces are lining up on both sides: Critics, including most law enforcement groups, say legalizing pot will only hurt California. Supporters, including pot growers and dispensaries, argue passage will generate jobs and much-needed revenue.

If passed by voters in November, “The Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010″ will allow adults to grow and possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. It also allows cities and counties to regulate and tax cannabis production and sale, if they so choose. But there’s nothing in the language that explains how such regulation, control, and taxation would occur– local governments would need to figure it out on their own.

The initiative is sponsored by Richard Lee, the founder of the Bay Area’s Oaksterdam University, a marijuana trade school. “We see this as a first step, and it does leave it open for the legislature to expand upon it, and to establish a statewide regulation system,” Lee says.

He spent $1.4 million dollars to collect signatures and qualify the measure for the November ballot. It’s central argument: that legalization will generate revenue for cash-strapped California. NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is also endorsing the measure as a revenue raiser. “The Board of Equalization estimated that up to $1.4 billion dollars could be raised in California annually if marijuana were taxed in a manner similar to alcohol,” says Paul Armentano, a NORML spokesman in Northern California.

That’s a staggering figure, and one critics question. At a 10% tax rate, achieving that desired amount would require every man, woman and child in the Golden State to smoke nearly $400 worth of pot a year. But there’s little dispute the law would make it easier for kids to get access to the drug, especially since it allows anyone to grow it in their house.

“If this initiative passes you will see an increase in use by minors, and you will see an increase in highway fatalities,” says John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents a number of law enforcement groups, and who’s leading the fight against legalization.

Along with skyrocketing public health and safety costs, Lovell argues the promised taxes may be impossible to collect because growers and distributors might open themselves up to federal prosecution. The state also risks billions in federal funding, as legal marijuana could violate federal workplace safety laws.

Crime has also been a central concern in this debate. Advocates suggest legalizing pot will free up law enforcement resources to combat other offenses, and cut deeply into criminal profits. Opponents don’t buy it. They fear a rise in property crime, and warn legalization could hand the drug cartels a sprawling base of operations from which to access the multi-billion dollar U-S market for pot and harder drugs.

The latest non-partisan poll shows the measure with a slight lead: 49 to 41%. But political experts say that typically, initiatives need a much bigger majority at this point, to ensure a victory in November. Opponents know they’ll be outspent by pro-pot advocates, but say they’ll have enough money to get their message out– and if they can do that, they say, the measure will be defeated.

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