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Standing outside of a Sacramento medical cannabis dispensary, you might detect something in the air. No, it's not secondhand THC vapor — public medicating is prohibited in the county. What you sense is a shift in perspective. Public pressure is building for the legalization and regulation of one of the oldest cash crops in America: the plants of genus Cannabis.
The US federal government has held since 1970 that cannabis is a danger to public health and safety and listed the annual flowering herb under US code as having "high potential for abuse" and "no accepted medical potential."
"A lot of people are thinking that federal drug laws are arbitrary and now we're starting to see the translation of public sentiment into political will,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D - San Francisco) told The Sacramento Press.
In 1996, California voters passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 215, which allowed the possession, cultivation and use of cannabis for patients with a doctor's recommendation. Since then, voter majorities in Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have passed ballot initiatives to allow seriously ill Americans to use cannabis.
In 2003, after numerous rewrites, the California Legislature recognized and further protected medical marijuana uses with SB 420. State legislatures of Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Mexico have passed bills that do mostly the same. SB 420 is unlike other bills in that it also allows for the formation of patient collectives — not-for-profit businesses that provide medical cannabis to qualified patients.
American Association for Medical Cannabis state director Ryan Landers had a hand in the shaping of 420. "Originally, 420 started out as 187, a bill that was more conservative and, I felt, would help less people. It was sent to the suspense file and I had this feeling it would be coming back, so I helped to rewrite it for greater patient coverage."
Before 420, several bills entered debate that would contravene Proposition 215. In 2000, two of these bills emerged. Former state Senator Maurice Johannessen authored SB 2089, a bill that would have limited the recommendation of cannabis and restricted patients to two indoor plants. It failed in the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, its first committee.
SB 848, authored by former state Senator John Vasconcellos, would have placed harsher regulations on medicinal cannabis and was refused passage in the Assembly.
"I testified to kill those bills to ensure that there would be no misunderstanding," Landers said. "I want to provide freedom for the most patients possible."
According to a 2004 survey by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), over 75,000 Californians have become cannabis patients under the provisions of the Compassionate Use Act (215) and the Medical Marijuana Program (420).
Physicians and medical professionals have been a vital source of support for the medical cannabis movement. Dr. Frank Lucido, a 30-year private practice doctor and respected medical cannabis spokesman, estimates that 1,500 doctors in California recommend cannabis to chronically ill patients. He said that significant stigma still surrounds the drug, however.
"There are two reasons doctors are hesitant to prescribe cannabis," he said. “First, a lot of doctors don't know the value of the drug because they simply weren't taught that in medical school. Second, many are afraid of the California Medical Board and federal law enforcement, even though they're protected by Supreme Court rulings."
Lucido believes that medical cannabis, despite its enduring taboo in the medical sector, has wide applicability.
"Every doctor knows they have about 20 slam-dunk patients that could benefit greatly from medical cannabis."
Full legalization is a completely different animal and Ammiano knows it. The state representative introduced AB 390 in March to a blaze of attention. Since then, the bill has failed to move through the legislature. However, Ammiano planned for AB 390 to be a two-year bill.
"The debate we're having is sustainable, it has legs," Ammiano said. "And it's way bigger than just me."
AB 390 is a bill of a rare breed: It is both a full decriminalization of cannabis for adults over the age of 21, and a plan to enforce systems of taxation to tap into the drug's booming commercial value.
This would work twofold by would generating tax receipts and reducing state expenses. The bill planned to institute a tax of $50 per ounce of dried marijuana sold by official retailers, who would pay no more than $2,500 for an annual sales license and $1,000 for a renewal. Further, the bill would free up state resources in law enforcement, no longer regarding cannabis users as a criminal priority.
"It's California's biggest cash crop and right now we're hemorrhaging money to prosecute and imprison minor drug offenders,” Ammiano said. “With the current budget crisis, this is looking like the perfect storm."
Cannabis activists largely support AB 390, though the seasoned Landers objects to some points.
"The bill started out ahead of itself," he said. "The profits and tax numbers it projects are based on the illegal price of cannabis. Once legalization gets through, supply will increase and prices will have to settle. A $50 tax on an ounce that costs $25, which is the final pre-tax price most people hope for, would be ridiculous."
The age limit in the bill -- that Ammiano modeled after alcohol regulations -- is also contentious.
"The age limit of 21 is entirely a concession," Landers said. "Putting cannabis into the same category of regulation as alcohol opens up a host of problems. Eighteen-year-olds could take the state to court and force them to explain why cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol, even though marijuana alone has never killed a soul."
Ammiano's bill has the support of San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey, although law enforcement has historically been extremely critical of legalization. "I think marijuana should be decriminalized," Hennessey told SFWeekly in February. "I'd like to give more thought to heroin and methamphetamines and that kind of stuff."
The California Police Chiefs Association disagrees, having issued a 2009 White Paper that rebuked even the medicinal use of cannabis. The white paper characterizes medical cannabis dispensaries as "multi-million dollar enterprises" which are "often used as a front for organized crime" where "many violent crimes have been committed," fostering "generally unhealthy conditions."
But actual instances of crime in and around dispensaries is fairly rare, according to Sacramento Police Department spokesman Norm Leong. "Service calls are generally uncommon, he said. “And when we do get calls, it's the dispensary owners that call it in."
Ammiano sees a gradual change of mind regarding cannabis in law enforcement.
"There's certainly a mindset there, but there are cracks in that as well. It's not as monolithic as it used to be."
He also cited the late conservative economist Milton Friedman, who supported cannabis legalization and taxation toward the end of his life.
Outside of Ammiano’s efforts, activist groups are taking other routes. Two voter initiatives are circulating through California, both of which propose to legalize, regulate and tax cannabis.
The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, introduced by Oaksterdam University, would enact largely the same legalization measures as Ammiano's bill. This would allow the pro-cannabis supporters to get legalization directly onto the ballot and circumvent any lack of political support.
"The cannabis regulating system we currently have in place has failed," said Salwa Ibrahim, spokesperson for the initiative. "We want to empower the state to benefit from something that's already existing."
Ibrahim cited other benefits that are frequently discussed in the cannabis debate. "We don't think consumption or crime would increase at all. Similar to prohibition in the '20s, the black markets [that] illegality has created would disappear."
Regardless of the outcome of any of these movements, it seems clear that the public dialogue on legal cannabis has taken a step forward.
"390 has done an amazing thing, and that's this: It ignited the conversation," Landers said.
With or without the blessing of the law, humans worldwide are planting the cannabis seed. The renewed question on everyone's mind is what to do with the harvest.
This story was written by former Sacramento Press intern Cheyenne Cary.