Published on
San Francisco Chronicle

Political Winds Shift in Favor of Legalized Pot

Carla Marinucci

Richard Lee, director of Oaksterdam University, monitors the growth of a marijuana crop at the school's indoor growing lab in Oakland. (Paul Chinn / The Chronicle)

Marijuana has been a part of the American
cultural landscape for nearly a century, tried by millions - including,
apparently, the last three presidents and the current California

So why has it taken so long to arrive at a political moment of
truth - a full national debate about the legalization, taxation and
regulation of cannabis?

Experts say an unprecedented confluence of factors might finally be
driving a change on a topic once seen as politically too hot to handle.

Among them: the recession-fueled need for more public revenue,
increased calls to redirect scarce law enforcement, court and prison
resources, and a growing desire to declaw powerful and violent Mexican
drug cartels. Also in the mix is a public opinion shift driven by a
generation of Baby Boomers, combined with some new high-profile calls
for legislation - including some well-known conservative voices joining
with liberals.

Leading conservatives like former Secretary of State George Shultz
and the late economist Milton Friedman years ago called for
legalization and a change in the strategy in the war on drugs. This
year mainstream pundits like Fox News' Glenn Beck and CNN's Jack
Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year fighting
the endless war against drugs and to suggest it now makes more
financial and social sense to tax and regulate marijuana.

"It's a combination of all these things coming together at once and
producing that 'aha' moment," said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the
Marijuana Policy Project, who for years has monitored the wavering
political winds on the subject. He says so much has changed in recent
months that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, it looks

"If you'd asked me 10 years ago - or three years ago - I would have
said it will be a long, slow slog," he said. "And now, it looks like it
might happen faster than any of us believed."

President Obama recently took a prime-time news conference question
on marijuana legalization - and laughingly sidestepped the question.
But among the very serious items driving the public debate is
California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to tax and regulate the drug
- an idea that polls suggest is no longer out of the mainstream.

The findings of a February Rasmussen poll showed 40 percent of
Americans support legalizing the drug, with 46 percent opposed and 14
percent unsure.

54% in state favor legalization

A new California poll by Oakland EMC Research specifically tracked
state voters' attitudes on marijuana use, taxation and legalization.

Alex Evans, president and founder of EMC, said his firm has done
the same study for years for Oaksterdam University, an Oakland medical
marijuana dispensary and education group, but 2009 marks the first time
the poll showed that a clear majority of state voters, 54 percent, say
the drug should be legalized, compared with 39 percent opposed. (The
poll of 551 likely voters was taken March 16-21 and has a margin of
error of 4.2 percentage points.)

"Part of the explanation is people's good feelings about medical
marijuana," he said. "It's demonstrated that it can work. People are
growing in confidence that we can continue to make it more legal."

The shift appears to be driven by aging Baby Boomers' "own personal
experience with cannabis," he said, especially their growing belief
that "there's not much difference between that and alcohol ... it is
leading them to support more of a tax-and-regulate attitude."

Some see pot as gateway drug

Opponents of legalization have long expressed concerns, saying that
making marijuana legal will compound substance abuse problems, that it
is a gateway drug that leads to use of harder drugs and that
legalization would send the wrong message to children.

But Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, who supports
Ammiano's effort, says that in a state racked by a $42 billion deficit
- where marijuana is also now ranked as the largest cash crop - it is
"completely reasonable and sensible" to take another look.

"To continue to outlaw it and not tax it is really to keep one's
head in the sand, as if we can pretend and it will go away," he said.
"Minimally, I'm hoping we take a look at the billions of dollars we've
spent on the war on drugs: Have we gotten our money's worth?"


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Already, some localities are exploring that issue - and whether
they can get their money's worth from rethinking cannabis legislation.

Marijuana as industry

Voters in Oakland, a city crippled by a $65 million deficit, could
soon decide whether to approve a hike in the business tax of as much as
10 times the current rate for medical marijuana dispensaries, an idea
advanced by City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

She co-authored the voter-approved Measure Z, which makes cannabis
the lowest law enforcement priority in the city and mandates that
Oakland tax and regulate the drug as soon as possible under state law.

Richard Lee, the director of Oaksterdam University, said the keen
interest in possible new revenue from cannabis sales was underscored
when he was recently asked to testify to Oakland officials on the
matter "in front of the finance committee ... not health and safety."

Lee said his own thriving multi-faceted enterprise, a national
spearhead in what is increasingly being called the "cannabis industry,"
dramatizes exactly the potential for those revenues.

Oaksterdam operates four medical marijuana dispensaries and a score
of busy related downtown businesses - including an Amsterdam-style
coffee shop, an educational facility offering popular 13-week marijuana
cultivation courses, a bike rental shop, a gift shop, a glass blowing
facility for making pipes, a marijuana nursery and a media company that
produces publications like West Coast Cannabis magazine. Business is

'We have to prove ourselves'

Still, politicians on both sides of the aisle have been wary of
aligning themselves with marijuana advocates, and "we have to prove
ourselves," Lee said .

But it appears the movement's advocates have learned some political
lessons since the '70s, when the Woodstock generation thrived.

In the 21st century, Lee said, the message of the marijuana movement
is "about less government ... and more jobs, taxes and tourism."


Marijuana use - facts and figures

Some of the studies and statistics being cited in the discussion on taxing and regulating marijuana:

-- A recent World Health Organization study found that 42.4 percent
of Americans have tried marijuana. That is the highest percentage of
any country surveyed and compares to a 20 percent rate in the
Netherlands, where the drug is legal.

-- A National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggested California may
be producing a whopping 38 percent of the marijuana grown in the United
States. The study suggests there are an estimated 3.3 million cannabis
users here, representing about 13 percent of the nation's marijuana

-- California's state-funded Campaign Against Marijuana Planting
seized nearly 1.7 million plants in 2006 with an estimated street value
of more than $6.7 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. Studies
have ranked the state as the national leader in both outdoor and indoor
marijuana production, with an estimated 4.2 million indoor plants
valued at nearly $1.5 billion, the paper reported.

-- National statistics show 872,000 arrests last year related to
marijuana, 775,000 of them for possession, not sale or manufacturing -
sparking some critics to suggest that the resources of the criminal
justice system, including the crowded state prisons and courts, might
be better used elsewhere.

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