Is Pot Legalization Push in California a Trend That Will Spread?

Is Pot Legalization Push in California a Trend That Will Spread?

San Francisco – It’s almost a cliché these days that this city and its sister to the east, Oakland, stand as the primary incubators of some of California’s infamously wacky but later transformational social and political ideas.

From the Silicon Valley to Oakland and Berkeley to the Napa Valley – if it was at first weird, untested, illegal and/or controversial, it probably got its start right here.

Now a small but determined coalition of Bay Area activists and politicos are on a mission to have California be the first state in the union to fully legalize, regulate and tax the use of marijuana – and they’re approaching that goal from several different angles.

The groups began their quest by building on the foundation that the 1996 approval of Proposition 215 provided.

The statewide initiative, which made California the first state in the nation to legalize medicinal marijuana, broke down many long-held views on the drug – especially in its compassionate use for cancer patients and other chronic disease sufferers.

San Francisco and Oakland were among the first to see medical pot dispensaries pop up.

A whole section of Oakland’s downtown has willingly taken on the nickname “Oaksterdam” (a play on the name of the capital city of the Netherlands, where pot use has been legal since the early 1970s) because of its array of dispensaries and marijuana-related products and services.

City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said a political sea change on the issue of marijuana in California began in early 2009, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal drug officers no longer would target the operators or customers of legitimate medical pot dispensaries.

Then an April 2009 Field Poll showed that 56 percent of Californians now support full legalization, regulation and taxation of the drug.

“That decision plus the Field Poll has had a dramatic impact on how we look at pot in California these days,” said Kaplan, who believes full legalization and regulation of marijuana is just a matter of time. State and local governments, she notes, can use the new tax revenues that pot legalization would bring.

In Oakland’s case, the city already collects money from legal medicinal pot businesses located there as a result of the passage of Measure J last summer. The measure placed a special tax of $18 per $1,000 of sales on medical pot dispensaries in the city. In the process, Oakland became the first city in the nation to assess a tax on marijuana.

Now Kaplan wants to take it to next level. “It’s time we take the criminal element out of the pot business,” she said. “By having local government license and regulate these grow houses, the criminal element and the irresponsible operators can be removed from the equation, which will make our cities safer.”

Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University – a vocational school for future marijuana industry entrepreneurs – likens the current environment to the 1920s and early 1930s, when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensured that alcohol was available only through illegal and underground “speakeasy” drinking clubs.

It wasn’t until December 1933 that ratification of the 21st Amendment made alcohol consumption legal again.

“Alcohol prohibition ended slowly,” said Lee, who owns several other pot-related businesses in the Oaksterdam district.

Bay Area residents, in particular, are more sympathetic to legalizing pot than Californians in other parts of the state. More than 70 percent of the area’s registered voters supported the idea in last year’s Field Poll, more than any other region of the state.

“Maybe it harkens back to … the Summer of Love and the hippies” in 1967, Lee said.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t by mistake that Lee chose Oakland and San Francisco to be headquarters cities for his Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 initiative effort.

Proponents recently filed an estimated 693,800 petition signatures to qualify the measure for the statewide ballot in the November election. To qualify, the measure needs 433,971 valid voter signatures, officials said.

If approved by the electorate, the cannabis tax measure would make limited private possession and cultivation of pot legal for those 21 and older. It also would allow local governments to permit, regulate and tax marijuana growing operations within their jurisdictions. Lee says the measure could generate billions in new tax revenue for the state in its first year.

“We think Californians are now ready to legalize marijuana in a controlled, safe manner, which will bring whole new streams to revenue to Sacramento and to our local governments,” Lee said.

The more permissive atmosphere helped Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, pass a pot legalization bill out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee recently.

If the Bay Area is ground zero for the effort to fully legalize pot, many other California communities are still struggling with issues surrounding the use of medical marijuana.

One recent example occurred Jan. 26, when the Los Angeles City Council voted to shut down an estimated 80 percent of that city’s 1,000 medical pot dispensaries.

Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political science professor, said 2010 indeed may be the year that California legalizes pot and that Bay Area politicos and activists likely will be at the forefront of the effort. But he warned that political trends popular in San Francisco and the East Bay don’t always sell well in more rural parts of the state.

“If this gets painted as a Haight-Ashbury vs. the rest of California thing, there’s likely to be a backlash,” Cook said. “On the other hand if it’s promoted as a way to help a severely deficit-plagued state pay for schools and parks, then there’s a chance it will succeed.

“I’m going to be watching this one with great interest.”

Jeff Mitchell is a Bay Area-based journalist.