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Could pot be Calif.'s next cash crop?

July 29, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
When the city of Oakland voted to impose a tax on medical marijuana, leaders of other cities took notice. And it has become a powerful part of the argument for legalization.Dann Halem is a medical marijuana patient and provider who delivers marijuana by car.

"If somebody is in a cancer hospice, or if someone happens to be wheelchair bound ... They can call us up -- or somebody else who does what we do -- and we will go to the privacy of their home, and take care of them," said Halem.

Someday soon, California residents may be able to do the same for recreational marijuana. There are two proposed laws -- one in Congress and one in the California Legislature -- which could decriminalize marijuana for personal use by adults over 21 years of age. One of the biggest advocates for the proposals is Superior Court Judge James Gray.

"It's time that we face facts. It's time that we regulate and control and monitor this market instead of moralize about it," said Judge Gray.

Assembly Bill 390 would legalize marijuana and set up the rules under which it could be bought, sold and grown. It would also impose a tax of $50 per ounce. The California State Board of Equalization says the money saved on law enforcement and incarceration, combined with the added revenue, would mean a $2 billion bonus per year for cash-strapped California.

"We could not only use the money for our budget woes, but also to use that money for more effective drug prevention, particularly around young people," said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who authored the bill.

Joel Hay, a pharmacy professor at the University of Southern California says making marijuana more available does our young people no good. He points to a report from the federal drug czar.

"Teenage use of marijuana has gone up substantially in those states that have medical marijuana," said Dr. Hay.

The drug czar says violent Mexican drug cartels get 60 percent of their money from marijuana. Would legalization put them out of business?

"How are we going to carry out this program? And the answer is you have to undercut the price of the illegal dealers," said Judge Gray. "Tom Ammiano's bill would cut the price that people pay today in half."

With the added taxes, that means pot that sells today for $400 per ounce would go for around $270. But if marijuana becomes both cheaper and legal, some say demand might skyrocket.

"In Holland anyone 16 years of age or older can go to a coffee shop and can buy coffee, tea and marijuana, and hashish as a matter of fact, too," said Judge Gray. "And they only have half the marijuana consumption in Holland per capita as we do in the United States, according to the Minster of Health. And he looked at us and said, 'You know our program is working. You know how it's working? And why? We have succeeded in making pot boring.'"

Although the future of marijuana is still all theory, it could be reality very soon.

"The legalization or decriminalization of marijuana sometime in the next five, six years -- perhaps even earlier -- is going to be inevitable," said Ammiano.

Along with the bills introduced in congress and in the state legislature, marijuana advocates are trying to launch a ballot initiative in 2010 that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. They also hope to legalize growing marijuana at home. The initiative needs 434,000 signatures to qualify for the California ballot.

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