Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is Marijuana the Answer to California's Budget Woes?

A July 22, 2009 article by Tom McNichol in TIME magazine asks "Is Marijuana the Answer to California's Budget Woes?":
Proponents of marijuana legalization have advanced plenty of arguments in support of their drug of choice — that marijuana is less dangerous than legal substances like cigarettes and alcohol; that pot has legitimate medical uses; that the money spent prosecuting marijuana offenses would be better used on more pressing public concerns.

While 13 states permit the limited sale of marijuana for medical use, and polls show a steady increase in the number of Americans who favor legalization, federal law still bans the cultivation, sale, or possession of marijuana. In fact, the feds still classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, one that has no "currently accepted medical use" in the United States.

(See a TIME video on Medical Marijiuana Home Delivery)

But supporters of legalization may have been handed their most convincing argument yet: the bummer economy. Advocates argue that if state or local governments could collect a tax on even a fraction of pot sales, it would help rescue cash-strapped communities. Not surprisingly, the idea is getting traction in California, home to both the nation"s largest supply of domestically grown marijuana (worth a estimated $14 billion a year) and to the country"s biggest state budget deficit (more than $26 billion).

On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California legislative leaders a tentative budget agreement to plug the state's deficit, but it would involve making sweeping cuts in education and health services, as well as taking billions from county governments. Democratic state assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced legislation that would let California regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. The state's proposed $50 an ounce pot tax would bring in about $1.3 billion a year in additional revenue. Ammiano's bill was shelved this session but he expects to introduce a revised bill early next year.

(Read "Can Marijuana Help Rescue California's Economy?")

If the state legislature doesn"t act, perhaps California voters will. One group is preparing to place a statewide initiative for the November 2010 ballot that would regulate and tax the sale of marijuana for Californians 21 years of age and older. Tellingly, the group spearheading the measure calls itself, stressing the revenue advantages of marijuana legalization. The group hopes to collect the required 650,000 voter signatures by January to place the measure on the November 2010 ballot.

"There"s no doubt that the ground is shifting on marijuana," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs. "The discussion about regulating and taxing marijuana now has an air of legitimacy to it that it didn"t quite have before. And the economy has given the issue a real turbo charge."

(Read "Can Marijuana Help Rescue California's Economy?")

The legalization effort is getting serious consideration from surprising quarters. In May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly called for a large-scale study to determine whether to legalize and tax marijuana.

"I think it"s time for a debate," the governor said at a news conference. "I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs."

(See a TIME photoessay on Cannabis Culture)

In California, medical marijuana sales are already taxed, and some communities are looking for ways to get a bigger slice of the pot pie. Residents Oakland are currently voting in a mail-in special election that includes a measure which would make the city the first in the country to establish a new tax rate for medical marijuana businesses. If the measure passes, Oakland marijuana dispensaries, which are now charged at the general tax rate of $1.20 per $1,000 in receipts, would see that rate raised to $18 per $1,000.

A Field Poll conducted in California this spring showed 56% of the state"s registered voters in support of legalizing and taxing marijuana as a way of offsetting some of the budget deficit. Several national polls have shown that more than 45% of American adults are open to legalizing pot, about double the support a decade ago.

Even the most ardent marijuana advocates aren"t expecting nationwide legalization anytime soon. Instead, any action is likely to come on the state and local level. For now, all eyes are on cash-strapped California, where high taxes could take on an entirely new meaning.

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