Legalizing marijuana in California could generate $1.4 billion a year for the cash-starved state treasury, according to the state Board of Equalization. It's supported by 56 percent of the public, according to a Field Poll in April.
But it's not a proposal that any of the five leading candidates for governor is willing to embrace.
"If the whole society starts getting stoned, we're going to be even less competitive," Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown - who as governor signed a 1975 law reducing possession of small amounts of pot to a $100 misdemeanor - said on a recent radio show.
"Like electing Jerry Brown as governor, the idea of legalizing drugs is one more bad idea from a bygone era," said Jarrod Agen, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says the state needs "a new direction in drug policy," but opposes legalizing marijuana -though he welcomes an "open dialogue" on the subject as he seeks the Democratic nomination.
The candidates' views pose one more obstacle for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has acknowledged that his bill to legalize and tax marijuana, AB390, is a long-term project.
Ammiano has yet to enlist any legislative co-sponsors. Winning majority votes appears to be a distant goal, despite Democratic control of both the Assembly and state Senate. Persuading a governor to sign the bill won't be easy, and at the end of the gantlet, federal law still prohibits marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution.
At least people are talking about the subject, said Ammiano spokesman Quintin Mecke. "The deeper the economic hole becomes for California, the further the conversation will progress," he said.
The debate could also shift to the ballot box, as legalization advocates hope to sidestep the Legislature and put an initiative before the voters next year, when they will also be choosing the next governor.
California has been a leader in liberalizing marijuana laws. The state was one of the first to end felony penalties for possession 34 years ago, and became the first, in a 1996 ballot initiative, to legalize the medical use of marijuana.
Legalization for personal use, however, is a much tougher sell.
Police groups strongly oppose it, politicians fear being seen as soft on drug dealers, and federal law, if enforced, could make state legislation an exercise in futility. It's unlikely to be a major issue in the governor's race, but it's a revealing subject for several candidates.
Republican Tom Campbell, for example, has denounced the government's war on drugs in past campaigns, saying the billions of dollars that go to eradication and imprisonment would be better spent on treatment. Opponents, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom the former South Bay congressman unsuccessfully challenged in 2000, have attacked him as soft on drugs and a would-be legalizer.
Campbell, however, says he opposes legalizing marijuana because it could open the door to organized crime. Law enforcement contacts, he said, have warned him that Mexican marijuana distributors also dominate the methamphetamine trade, and "if you legalize the one, you run the risk of creating a distribution mechanism for the other."
Brown, a still-undeclared candidate for the office he held from 1975 to 1983, uses 1960s lingo to take a top-cop stance.
Asked July 18 on Oakland radio station KKGN about taxing legal pot sales to help balance the state budget, Brown replied, "As far as telling everybody to - what did Timothy Leary say, 'Tune in, turn on, and drop out'? - that will not be the recommendation of the attorney general."
New revenue sources are worth considering, he said, but a stoned society means "more broken families and more angry husbands and wives. ... We need more discipline, we need more focus, and we're going to have to work harder."
Newsom takes a different tone, in keeping with his need to appeal to young voters as he challenges Brown for the Democratic nomination.
The war on drugs is "an abject failure," the mayor says, consuming "precious, limited public safety dollars" by treating nonviolent offenders the same as violent felons. But when pressed on legalizing marijuana, spokesman Nathan Ballard said Newsom doesn't think it's a "responsible way to balance the state's budget."
On the Republican side, Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, said she opposes legalizing marijuana for any reason. "We have enough challenges in our society without heading down the path of drug legalization," she said in a statement.
Attack on opposition
Poizner turns his opposition to legalization into an attack on Brown and the "bygone era" of the '60s as well as raising taxes on marijuana or anything else.
"Only those who are smoking something think tax increases will lead to economic growth," said Agen, Poizner's spokesman.
One advocate of legalized pot shrugs off the candidates' positions.
"Supporting legalization probably risks losing the support of law enforcement," but "I think opposing it is going to turn off some younger voters," said Dale Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
On this issue, he said, "the public's perceptions are always ahead of the politicians."
What gubernatorial candidates have said about pot policy
Meg Whitman: "I am absolutely against legalizing marijuana for any reason. We have enough challenges in our society without heading down the path of drug legalization."
Gavin Newsom, whose campaign spokesman says he opposes legalization: "I welcome an open dialogue in California on the relative merits of legalization of cannabis. ... While marijuana has positive medicinal properties, it also has adverse effects."
Attorney General Jerry Brown: "If the whole society starts getting stoned, we're going to be even less competitive. And we're going to have more broken families and more angry husbands and wives."
Former Rep. Tom Campbell: "The principal (Mexican) distributors of marijuana are also dominant forces in meth. If you legalize the one, you run the risk of creating a distribution mechanism for the other."
Jarrod Agen, spokesman for Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner: "The idea of legalizing drugs is one more bad idea from a bygone era. Nor can California smoke its way out of the structural budget deficit."
By Bob Egelko
Saturday August 8, 2009
San Francisco Chronicle