On Monday, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in California. AB 390 would decriminalize pot but regulate it like alcohol, limiting sales to those 21 and over. It would also impose a tax of $50 per ounce—something Ammiano said could bring $1 billion annually into our cash-starved state.
Recent history—as well as the negative reaction of some law-enforcement groups and a few of Ammiano’s legislative colleagues—suggest the bill is a long-shot for this session. In the last few years, far less ambitious bills have stalled or gone down in defeat. This includes measures to lower pot possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, as well as a bipartisan measure that would have legalized production of pot’s non-intoxicating cousin, industrial hemp.
“From the Reeps I get ‘This is great, I wish I could vote for it,’ Ammiano said.
Ammiano went on to note that estimates show that state’s marijuana industry is valued at about $14 billion annually—at least four times larger than California’s vaunted wine industry. Meanwhile, he said, the Obama administration has been telegraphing they might relax some aspects of the drug war. When you add the revenue component to the growing support for legalization, he said, this bill—or a more moderate version—could gain much support.
“It’s a very populist issue,” he said. “I think people are going to be surprised at how much support this has with their own constituencies.”
Long-term trends suggest that marijuana legalization may be visible on the horizon. The day before Ammiano’s bill was announced, blogger Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com published a widely-cited piece arguing that pot legalization sentiment has passed a magic point from which few issues ever return.
Silver came to fame last year as one of the most accurate predictors of the election. His site is based on the idea that it is possible to glean a great deal of accurate information by looking at the right polls in the right way.
When it comes to marijuana, Silver charted a forty year journey which started with legalization as a fringe issue with 10 percent support in 1969. Aside from a hiccup in the 1980s, the lines for and against legalization have been moving closer—and appear to be colliding head-on in the latter half of this decade.
Recently, he said, most polls show the issue with at least 40 percent support—a line he called “significant.” He went on the note an AARP poll that found only eight percent of those over 70 said they had ever tried pot. But 58 percent of people aged 45 to 49 have, as have our last three presidents. Silver even went so far as to predict that support would pass 60 percent by 2022 or 2023.
On the more-socially liberal West Coast, that day has nearly arrived. A Zogby poll conducted last week put support in the region at 58 percent.
Dale Gieringer of California NORML said he has also seen this trend. When President Barrack Obama opened up his Change.org website to suggestions over what his top priorities should be, he said, marijuana legalization came in first—something the Obama team hid by releasing the result in no particular order.
At the same time, Gieringer admitted, “I certainly do not expect any move towards adult use legalization at the national level anytime soon.”