Legislation to make California the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use lit up a Capitol committee hearing Wednesday with three hours of lively but mellow debate.
No joint consensus was reached.
Dozens of people crammed into the Assembly Public Safety Committee session to discuss potential impacts of the proposal to allow pot to be taxed and sold openly to adults 21 and older.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat who proposed the measure, Assembly Bill 390, contends it could generate much-needed revenue and free peace officers to focus on worse crimes.
“Prohibition results in chaos, which is pretty much the situation we have now,” Ammiano said shortly before the hearing.
But John Standish, president of the California Peace Officers’ Association, testified that approving public pot use could exacerbate problems from illnesses to absenteeism.
“There is no way marijuana could protect and promote our society,” he said. “In fact, it radically diminishes it.”
Phillip Smith, 55, described himself as a pot smoker who otherwise abides by the law.
“All I want is to be left alone,” he said.
Medical marijuana use already is legal in California, but not recreational use. More than 78,500 people were arrested in 2008 on pot-related offenses, state records show.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken no position on AB 390.
“He opposes the legalization of marijuana, but he believes we should have a robust debate on the issue, not only in fiscal terms but also with regard to health care and public safety,” spokesman Aaron McLear said.
Marijuana supporters, law enforcement officials, legal experts and others sparred Wednesday over the wisdom of decriminalization and the parameters of state discretion in allowing sale of a drug prohibited under federal law.
Testimony revealed layers of complexity.
Attorney Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance Network testified that nothing bars the state from decriminalizing pot, for example, while Attorney Marty Mayer of the California Peace Officers’ Association countered that doing so would not prevent prosecution under federal law.
Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, suggested the taxing scheme could fall apart because retailers filing records of marijuana sales might incriminate themselves on a federal offense. “You can’t force me to incriminate myself,” Hagman said.
Supporters of AB 390 countered that medicinal marijuana dispensaries pay state taxes, despite the federal pot ban, a fact confirmed later Wednesday by the Board of Equalization.
Equally hazy Wednesday was potential revenue that could be raised through a $50-per-ounce excise tax, sales taxes and seller fees.
The Board of Equalization has estimated that marijuana sales could generate nearly $1.4 billion annually, a figure that has been hotly contested.
Robert Ingenito, a BOE administrator, conceded Wednesday that the estimate depends on numerous assumptions, none backed by hard data. They range from market demand to extent of consumption, and from impact on street prices to potential reduction in taxable alcohol sales.
“This is an imperfect exercise,” he said.
Ammiano plans to push AB 390 when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
By Jim Sanders