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Ammiano hearing marks a historic shift

By Stephen Gutwillig, Drug Policy Alliance*

CAPITOL IDEA Proposed AB 390, sponsored by California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (at podium) to establish legal and regulated adult use of cannabis, was kicked off at a Oct. 28 press conference and committee hearing in Sacramento. From left to right: Rev. Mary Moreno Richardson, Allen Hopper of ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance staff attorney Tamar Todd, Cal NORML Director Dale Gieringer, Tom Ammiano, Aaron Smith of Marijuana Policy Project, and Steve Gutwillig, California State Director of DPA. Photo by Mikki Norris WEST COAST LEAF

Many Americans are following the escalating rhetoric over proliferating medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. The Obama administration’s Oct. 19 announcement that the federal government will consider state laws got even more attention.

Around the same time, another kind of cannabis news was made in Sacramento. The Assembly Public Safety Committee convened an unprecedented public hearing Oct. 28, the most prominent consideration of legalization in American history. Formally titled “Examining the Fiscal and Legal Implication of the Legalization and Regulation of Marijuana,” the hearing featured testimony from a range of regulation advocates and opponents.

The meeting chaired by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, author of California’s landmark cannabis legalization bill (AB 390), proposed the same regulation for adult use of cannabis as for alcohol. It was a remarkable moment in the struggle to change decades-old policies. A recent avalanche of high-profile media has declared that although illegal, cannabis has gone mainstream. Its use is second only to alcohol and cigarettes, is objectively far less harmful than either, is dramatically less addictive and cannot cause an overdose. Every major independent study has debunked the gateway myth.

Those of us concerned about youth access note that children across the country consistently report that pot is easy for them to get from their peers and the black market while there are significant barriers to stop them from buying alcohol and cigarettes. As a result, Americans are increasingly turning against a prohibition that fails to protect kids and guarantees a market share to brutal criminal syndicates.

While polls have long confirmed that large majorities favor treating pot possession as an infraction without arrest, support for ending cannabis prohibition outright is quickly gaining speed. A Gallup poll in the Fall reported that a historic 44 percent of Americans favor legalization, a 10-point jump since 2001. Respondents across the Western states registered that opinion in sizable majorities.

Even with reform moving forward, arrests have tripled nationwide since 1991. In California, which decriminalized lowlevel possession in 1975, arrests have jumped 127 percent. Police made nearly 850,000 marijuana arrests across the country last year, which represents half of all drug arrests and more than all violent crime arrests combined. No law in the US is enforced so widely, yet deemed so unnecessary by so many.

These laws are enforced selectively and racially. African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana in California. A recent expose by the Pasadena Weekly found that blacks, 14 percent of that city’s population, account for more than half the marijuana arrests of the last five years.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of that Sacramento hearing, the first legislative discussion in the US about taking legal control of the massive cannabis market through state regulation. The Public Safety Committee has its hands full considering prohibition’s failures and the new mainstream movement for reform. Regulation will end the criminalization of millions of responsible adult users, redirect scarce police resources, generate new tax revenue, and reduce youth access.

This is a conversation that’s long overdue. * Gutwillig is the California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to promote alternatives to the failed Drug War.

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