Pot legalization bill clears Assembly hurdle

In what advocates say is the first action of its kind in the nation, an Assembly committee has approved legislation that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee passed the bill, AB 390 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, on Tuesday. The action by the Democrat-controlled committee – chaired by Ammiano — represents “

the first time a legislative body has ever voted to repeal MJ prohibition,” according to a statement issued by California NORML.

“The mere fact that there was a vote in the Assembly to regulate and control the sale and distribution of marijuana would have been unthinkable even one year ago,” said James Gray, a retired federal judge who has become a leading advocate for marijuana legalization. “And if the bill doesn’t get fully enacted this year, it will soon. Or, the bill will be irrelevant because the voters will have passed the measure to regulate and tax marijuana that will be on the ballot this November.”

That initiative, sponsored by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, recently passed its necessary signature threshold. Most polls give is a slight edge, though a Capitol Weekly/Probolsky Research poll conducted in late October found likely voters opposed the idea 52 percent to 38 percent.

After first being introduced nearly a year ago, the bill was amended last week.

Most of the changes were aimed at polishing the language, perhaps to address some of the rhetoric that has been used against it. The word “legalization” is completely gone from legislation that has been widely called “the legalization bill,” replaced by “regulation by the Department of Alcoholic Beverages.” The word “infractions” was replaced by “crimes,” in reference to those who sell marijuana to minors.

References to “adults” were changed to “persons 21 years of age or older.” The bill also now specifies that pot smoking would be banned in offices, restaurants and other locations that already bar tobacco smoke.

The bill also removed some references to “changes in federal law” because, according to Ammiano’s staff, such changes probably aren’t coming anytime soon. AB 390 still contains language that could place the state at odds with federal policy, including a clause stating one purpose is “to prevent state and local agencies from supporting any prosecution for federal or other crimes relating to marijuana that are inconsistent with those provided in this bill.”

Law enforcement groups have traditionally provided the main opposition efforts to reduce or eliminate penalties on marijuana, and several groups sent representatives to Tuesday’s hearing. However, the growing visibility of groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), as well as former judges and police officers who favor legalization, may have changed this dynamic.

In Sacramento, the most public opposition is being organized by a local religious group, International Faith-Based Coalition. The group was founded a year ago by Bishop Ron Allen, pastor with the Greater Solomon Temple Community Church and an resident of the mostly low-income Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento for all of his 51 years.

Contrary to the claims of marijuana proponents, Allen said that for him, marijuana really was a gateway drug. He said he began smoking it heavily at age 19, then moved on to a crack cocaine addiction that was with him from ages 33 to 40.

“I was a pastor on crack cocaine,” Allen said, adding that marijuana “was the start of my addiction.”

 Allen said that his group speaks out against all drugs-including legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and prescription painkillers.

“Can you just imagine having one more illicit drug legalized in the Oak Park community?” Allen asked.

The vote marked the second political victory that day for marijuana advocates. Earlier, the New Jersey Legislature voted to legalize medical marijuana, making it one of the first states on the East Coast to move in that direction. On Wednesday, the Washington Legislature is expected to consider a pair of marijuana legalization bills.

Voting in favor of the bill was Ammiano, joined by three other Democrats : Jerry Hill of South San Francisco, Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley. The no votes were Democrat Warren Furutani of Long Beach, and Republicans Curt Hagman of Chino Hills and Danny Gilmore of Hanford, a former Highway Patrol officer.

Jerry Hill of South San Francisco, Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Nancy Skinner of Berkeley. The no votes were cast by Warren Furutani of Long Beach, Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, and Danny Gilmore, R-Hanford. Gilmore is a former highway patrolman.

The long-term prospects of the bill if it faces the full Assembly may not be that bright. The three other Democrats who voted for it all brought up issues around teen use or other potential problems they saw, even while saying prohibition hasn’t been working. But legalization advocates weren’t complaining.

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