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Taxing pot could become a political toking point

An Assemblyman from San Francisco argues that it's time to tax and regulate the state's biggest cash crop in the same manner as alcohol. Opponents say it would create new costs for society.

February 24, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Could Cannabis sativa be a salvation for California's fiscal misfortunes? Can the state get a better budget grip by taxing what some folks toke?

An assemblyman from San Francisco announced legislation Monday to do just that: make California the first state in the nation to tax and regulate recreational marijuana in the same manner as alcohol.

Buoyed by the widely held belief that cannabis is California's biggest cash crop, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano contends it is time to reap some state revenue from that harvest while putting a damper on drug use by teens, cutting police costs and even helping Mother Nature.

"I know the jokes are going to be coming, but this is not a frivolous issue," said Ammiano, a Democrat elected in November after more than a dozen years as a San Francisco supervisor. "California always takes the lead -- on gay marriage, the sanctuary movement, medical marijuana."

Anti-drug groups are anything but amused by the idea of California collecting a windfall from the leafy herb that remains illegal under federal law.

"This would open another door in Pandora's box," said Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society From Drugs. "Legalizing drugs like this would create a whole new set of costs for society."

Ammiano's measure, AB 390, would essentially replicate the regulatory structure used for beer, wine and hard liquor, with taxed sales barred to anyone under 21.

He said it would actually boost public safety, keeping law enforcement focused on more serious crimes while keeping marijuana away from teenagers who can readily purchase black-market pot from peers.

The natural world would benefit, too, from the uprooting of environmentally destructive backcountry pot plantations that denude fragile ecosystems, Ammiano said.

But the biggest boon might be to the bottom line. By some estimates, California's pot crop is a $14-billion industry, putting it above vegetables ($5.7 billion) and grapes ($2.6 billion). If so, that could mean upward of $1 billion in tax revenue for the state each year.

"Having just closed a $42-billion budget deficit, generating new revenue is crucial to the state's long-term fiscal health," said Betty Yee, the state Board of Equalization chairwoman who appeared with Ammiano at a San Francisco news conference.

Also in support of opening debate on the issue are San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey and retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray, a longtime legalization proponent.

"I'm a martini guy myself," Ammiano said. "But I think it's time for California to . . . look at this in a truly deliberative fashion."

He sees the possibility of an eventual truce in the marijuana wars with Barack Obama now in the White House.

A White House spokesman declined to discuss Ammiano's legislation, instead pointing to a transition website that says the president "is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana."

Several cities in California and around the nation have adopted laws making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority, including Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Denver and Seattle.

Oakland went even further in 2004, requiring pot to be taxed if it is legalized.

But where Ammiano sees taxes, pot foes see trouble.

They say easier access means more problems with drug dependency among adults, heavier teen use and an increase in driving while high.

"If we think the drug cartels are going to tuck their tails between their legs and go home, I think we're badly mistaken," Fay said.

"They're going to heavily target our children."

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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