Marijuana: Looking into the political horizon

For years, there have been regular pushes in the Legislature – and at the ballot box – to legalize or decriminalize marijuana consumption, possession and cultivation.

This year was no exception: Earlier this month, legislation aimed at allowing local authorities to decide whether to prosecute growers for misdemeanors or felonies was rejected in the Assembly. It was the latest in a series of setbacks for marijuana advocates, who see legalization and decriminalization as inevitable.

But marijuana as a political and legal issue is not going away. The crux of the issue is not the medical efficacy of marijuana – it’s been legal in California since 1996 with the approval of Proposition 215 – but the larger social question of whether punishing people for marijuana-related offenses is sound public policy.

“It is a sustainable issue that probably will continue to be addressed on many levels,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. “There most likely will be a ballot measure in 2012 and most likely that ballot measure will be successful.”

Ammiano’s AB 1017, which would have defined cultivation as a “wobbler” – a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the prosecutor’s discretion – was turned down handily on the Assembly floor after emerging from Public Safety and the Appropriations Committees.

Ammiano, who has long pushed for decriminalization and legalization of marijuana possession, is optimistic about future efforts – despite the derailing of AB 1017, which has been turned into a two-year bill.

There is some basis for that optimism: Polls have shown the public evenly divided or supportive of decriminalization and as medical marijuana use becomes more widespread, acceptance of marijuana by the wide public is likely. Moreover, with a weak economy and local governments – and the state – starved for revenues, proposals to raise money by taxing marijuana plants is getting a warmer reception – particularly in the north state. There also may be a ripple effect from California’s overcrowded prisons: Under a federal court order to shed 30,000 prisoners in two years, local prosecutors may be less inclined to send new inmates into an already-overcrowded system.

“There still is residual opposition and even some intimidation, particularly when it comes to the Legislature, but we definitely see light at the end of the tunnel,” Ammiano said. “The support for it still is growing, although there is some concern on the parts of legislators about it.”

There is concern from the voters, too.

Last year, California voters decisively rejected Proposition 19, which would have allowed people 21 years old or older to possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use. Two years earlier, in a presidential election year, voters rejected Proposition 5, which would have expanded diversion programs for drug offenders, shortened paroles and provided for rehabilitation and treatment, rather than imprisonment, for several classes of drug offenses. Like Proposition 19, Proposition 5 was rejected, but Proposition 5 was defeated in a landslide, by nearly 20 percentage points.

 Advocates of easing drug laws believed that the 2008 ballot offered an opportunity: It was a presidential election year and Democrats were energized by the candidacy of Barack Obama. Next year, with Obama up for reelection, marijuana legalization backers may see the 2012 ballot as a strategic opportunity.

But others are skeptical. Marijuana legalization advocates have been disappointed thus far by the Obama administration’s response to their request to redefine marijuana as a legal, prescription drug. That request was made nine years ago to the administration of former President George Bush, who rejected it, and on this issue Obama has followed in Bush’s footsteps.

“They (Obama’s administration) have been negligent on this issue,” said Dale Gierenger of Cal NORML, which seeks a loosening of California’s marijuana laws. “Certainly support for him won’t be as good in 2012 as it was in 2008, at least on our part.”

Cultivation, he noted,  is a difficult legal area because the current penalty for growing small or large amounts is the same – a felony.

“If you grow a single marijuana plant at home on your own property that’s a felony, and that makes no sense whatsoever. Any cultivation at all is a felony. That’s a crime that the Legislature has failed to address.”

To date, nobody has stepped forward to fund a 2012 ballot initiative. And there is a clock ticking here: deadlines to submit the paperwork to begin the process of qualifying an initiative kick in by the fall.

Opposition to legalization is strongest among older voters, who are high-propensity voters, Gieringer noted.

“The polls are very clear on this. The opposition comes from the older generation that never used it, from people who have never tried any at all,” he added.

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