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Tapping into California’s forgotten cash crop makes sense

In the wake of a budget agreement that even those who supported it loathe for its tax increases and deep cuts to education and health care, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SanFrancisco) has offered a proposal that will bolster the state’s budget while protecting our environment and helping keep drugs away from kids.

Ammiano’s bill, AB 390, would put marijuana under the same regulatory system that now applies to beer, wine and liquor. It would end the bizarre and untenable situation in which California’s largest cash crop – valued at $13.8 billion annually – is completely untaxed.

Like it or not, California’s marijuana industry is huge. Indeed, our marijuana crop is worth more each year than the combined value of all the wheat and cotton produced in the entire U.S.

According to U.S. government surveys, two million Californiana use marijuana at least monthly, but both the producers and consumers of this crop escape paying any taxes on it whatsoever. While precise figures are impossible given the current illicit market, revenues from taxed and regulated marijuana could well be in the neighborhood of at least $1 billion per year.

Right now, our laws are based on the laughable notion that we can somehow make marijuana go away if police can just arrest enough users – over 74,000 in 2007 in California alone, 80 percent of them for simple possession – and rip up enough plants. It’s hard to think of a policy that’s been a more total failure.

Last year, the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) “eradicated” 2.9 million marijuana plants. CAMP and similar efforts have never made the slightest dent in the availability of marijuana, but they do involve many thousands of person-hours of effort and the use of helicopters and lots of other expensive equipment, all at taxpayers’ expense.

It gets worse. Some 70 percent of the plants CAMP seized were on public lands – often remote corners of national parks, forests, and other wilderness areas. These clandestine gardens pose a threat to our environment as well as the safety of hikers and other visitors. Regulating marijuana would immediately remove any incentive to grow on public land and save millions in eradication and environmental clean-up costs. After all, there’s a reason we never hear of criminal gangs planting illicit vineyards in our national forests.

A chorus of the usual entrenched interests has already taken up their habitual cry: “What about the children?” The real question is: What makes anyone believe our current policies have done anything to protect children?

The vested interests promoting prohibition don’t like to talk about this, but according to U.S. government estimates, marijuana use by people under age 21 has risen some 4,000% since the national ban on marijuana took effect in 1937. No one wants kids smoking marijuana, but the evidence suggests prohibition has made the problem worse, not better.

It’s not an accident that in the Netherlands, where for over three decades adults have been allowed to possess and purchase small amounts of marijuana from regulated businesses, a recent World Health Organization study found that not only are overall marijuana use rates lower than ours, the percentage of teens trying marijuana by age 15 is only one-third of ours.

And it’s not an accident that in this country, the tough crackdown on cigarette sales to minors that began in the mid-1990s has led to a sharp drop in teen cigarette smoking, while teen marijuana use rose during the same period. The latest federal survey found that under our current unregulated system, more 10th-graders now smoke marijuana than cigarettes.

Rather than cling to disastrously failed policies, it’s time to realize there is a better way. AB 390 is the right move for California.

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