Weed Takes Root

Marijuana's steady creep toward legalization nationwide.

According to the same state budget analysis, the value of today's annual marijuana harvest in California is $13.8 billion, making weed one of the state's biggest export crops. The value of the nation's entire pot harvest is $35.8 billion, according to the analysis. Since legalized medical cannabis is only a tiny fraction of the market and the dispensaries typically operate as nonprofits, virtually no income tax is collected. Indeed, income-tax projections have rarely played a role in the debate over legalization, although that, too, appears to be changing, especially in cash-strapped California.

"Our economic situation is egregious," says Ammiano, who plans to begin conducting hearings this month. "I think people have begun to take it seriously."

If Ammiano's bill fails — and many think it's too much, too soon — pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot next November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old founder of Oaksterdam.

Students at Oaksterdam University are taught the best methods of producing healthy cannabis plants.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Students at Oaksterdam University are taught the best methods of producing healthy cannabis plants.
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.
Roger L. Wollenberg UPI
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.

Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-­semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes at the three campuses: Los Angeles, Sebastopol, an hour north of San Francisco, and Oakland, where Lee just unveiled a three-story teaching facility.

The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered well over 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid.

"The response has been overwhelming,"Lee says.

If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with both Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals, and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot.

"Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215," Nadelmann says, referring to the 1996 medical-pot act. "We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It's not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something's possible." Proposition 36, California's 2000 initiative to favor drug treatment over jail time, was another example. "Once that passed, we started seeing queries from probably half the states over the following few years," Nadelmann says.

Aftereffects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the West — especially in Oregon and Washington state. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended the annual "Hempfest" this past year in Seattle.

In otherwise conservative Colorado, advocates staged a massive smokers' rally in Boulder, and voters are expected to weigh a statewide legalization measure in the next few years.

Whether the "devil weed" will ever play in Peoria is open to debate, but in October the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a ­medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months, and pockets of support for pot have become evident in Missouri and elsewhere in the heartland.

California's actions in 2010 may greatly influence the speed of those campaigns.

Reefer activists readily acknowledge that the quickening pace of change raises risks of a backlash. Intense concern already centers on the poorly regulated mess in Los Angeles, where a confused and largely paralyzed City Council has allowed the proliferation of more than 540 medical-marijuana dispensaries without regard to zoning or other restrictions imposed elsewhere in California.

Law-enforcement was never amenable to legalizing pot, but the situation in L.A. — a black eye to reformers everywhere — can only galvanize the resistance.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-­member California Peace Officers' Association, fairly bristles when confronted with the argument that pot should be made legal because it's no worse than booze. "What good comes of it?" he asks. "Right now we have enormous social and public-safety problems caused by alcohol abuse...[and] by pharmaceuticals. What is the good of adding another mind-altering substance? Look at all the highway fatalities. Why do we want to create another lawful substance that will add exponentially to that?"

That line of thinking suggests that society today would be more sober and safe if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned — an argument U.S. history, particularly the era of Prohibition, does not bear out.

Says Lovell, "I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight. I think people concerned about the social consequences of drug abuse will take on this fight. I think there will be a broad range of opposition."

Out in the streets, the counterinsurgency is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite the rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug.

A similar spike has occurred in New York, even though it was one of the first states to decriminalize small stashes of marijuana, 34 years ago. In fact, if there is a world capital for cannabis busts, it is New York City, where 40,000 people were arrested on pot charges in the last year.

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