Monday, September 28, 2009
BBC On California Medical Marijuana
California mulls legalising marijuana
Emilio San Pedro
Published: 2009/09/27 13:23:00 GMT
In 1996, voters in California approved a referendum that made it legal
for the first time in decades in the US for people to consume cannabis
for medicinal purposes.
More than a dozen states have followed suit since and several others -
the most recent of which is Massachusetts - have approved laws
decriminalising the possession of small amounts of the drug.
Now, there are moves afoot in California to go further to fully legalise
Evidence of the impact that the approval of medicinal marijuana has had
on some areas of California is clear in Oakland.
Across the bay from San Francisco, it has come to be known as
Oaksterdam, in a nod to the symbolic global capital of marijuana
The relaxed approach to marijuana use in this part of Oakland has led to
the opening of several marijuana dispensaries.
They are establishments in this once deprived area of town which sell a
broad array of cannabis related products, from food products such as
brownies and cereal bars laced with cannabis to traditional marijuana
"This is where it all started," says Richard Lee, a leading advocate for
the legalisation of cannabis, pointing to a building where the first
ever dispensary was opened in 1996.
His sense of excitement is palpable as he shows me around Oaksterdam,
which beyond dispensaries is also home to a facility where state
residents can go through the process of getting the ID needed for their
right to use cannabis for medical purposes.
The area is also home to the Oaksterdam University, which Mr Lee runs.
He shows me around the student union of the university, which he
describes as a trade school for all of those interested in finding a
place in the thriving cannabis trade that medicinal marijuana has
Mr Lee tells me that making cannabis use legal makes economic sense but
would also help in the fight against the Mexican drugs cartels.
"According to some estimates, the Mexican cartels get about 60-70% of
their money - their profit - from cannabis," he tells me.
"So if we cut that out of the equation then theoretically 60-70% of the
violence they perpetrate would be cut out, because they'd have less
money for the guns and weapons and ammunition to kill people and to
spend on bribing officials and all the rest," Mr Lee says.
That perspective, along with the fact that the California state
authorities estimate that marijuana could bring in nearly $1.5bn a year
in much needed tax revenue if it were legalised, has led to an increased
support among the state's voters for the full legalisation of the drug.
And, politicians like Tom Ammiano, who represents one of the most
liberal districts of San Francisco in the California state assembly,
have been paying close attention.
Mr Ammiano came into politics as a trailblazing gay rights activist in
the 1970s and has long advocated greater tolerance for cannabis use.
Earlier this year, he took that approach one step further and introduced
a bill in the California state assembly, which, if approved, would grant
cannabis the same legal status in the state as alcohol and tobacco.
" We like to say prohibition is chaos and regulation is control
Tom Ammiano California State Assemblyman
That would put California ahead of even Amsterdam, where marijuana use
is tolerated but not altogether legal.
Sitting with him in his office in the state government building in San
Francisco, with its sweeping views of the city, it becomes very clear
that his proposal is far from a flight of fancy.
He tells me he has been finding that more and more of his colleagues in
the state assembly are coming around to seeing why moving towards
legalisation makes perfect sense.
"People across the board, whether they're conservative or liberal, have
come to realise that the so-called war on drugs has failed and failed
miserably," Mr Ammiano says.
"In fact, it's costing us money instead of saving us money. This new
approach would be a way for the policing efforts to be focused on the
big bad guys, the cartels, with their violence and murder, and lighten
up on the more minor offenses. We like to say prohibition is chaos and
regulation is control," he adds.
"On the streets a drug dealer does not ask a kid for his ID before
selling him cannabis," he concludes with an acerbic, humorous tone that
serves as proof that he has, beyond politics, also had some success in
his other career as a stand-up comedian.
But, despite his optimistic tone, Mr Ammiano says that he knows that
those who oppose his proposal, including key figures in the medical and
law enforcement community, are armed with statistics pointing to the
damaging long-term effect of the drug and have the stamina and resources
to wage a major fight to ensure that the bill never gets signed into
One of those opponents of the proposal is Ronald Brooks, the president
of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, which
represents more than 70,000 narcotics enforcement officers in the US.
We meet in the town of Redwood City, south of San Francisco, and as I
get in his car, we drive past what appears to be a nondescript office
However, he tells me that, in the 1980s, it was a bank - the place where
his partner on the police force was killed in front of him by a ruthless
marijuana dealer, who was carrying out a bank robbery to fund his drug
He says experiences like that have strengthened his resolve that America
can't allow itself to take on a more lenient approach to marijuana.
"This argument of freeing up law enforcement so that we can take on the
cartels is seriously flawed," he tells me.
"This is really a hoax being perpetrated on the voters of California to
authorise their political agenda - that is to legalise marijuana as one
step to legalise drugs in America because they simply don't think that
the government ought to control drugs," he adds.
"The people who are going to lose if this gets approved are the
taxpayers because we're going to have increased costs associated with
this, both healthcare and law enforcement costs, and the people who have
to drive on the state's highways who are going to be in danger from
being hit by someone intoxicated from using cannabis. This is simply a
reckless public policy," he concludes.
Back across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, specifically Oaksterdam,
the patrons of the Bulldog Cafe are enjoying their legally sanctioned
right to consume marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Gary has travelled from Texas for the weekend to attend a seminar on the
cannabis trade at the Oaksterdam University across the street.
He is in his 50s, but says he is hoping to take the information he has
picked up in his course on the cannabis business and make a
life-transforming move in the coming months to California.
"My girlfriend and I are interested in moving to California from Texas
to become a part of this here. We're not quite sure where we fit in but
we want to get into the business itself. We feel it's an emerging
industry, and this is where I feel compelled to come," he tells me as
the smell of cannabis wafts through the room.
Like Gary, there are hundreds of others participating in the courses at
the Oaksterdam University on any given week.
Beyond that, there are more than 200,000 people in the state registered
as consumers of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
As for Mr Ammiano's proposal to legalise marijuana in the state, that is
still making its way through the California state assembly and it is
difficult to say whether it will succeed or not.
What is clear, however, is that whatever the outcome of the legalisation
proposal, the medical marijuana law and the multi-million dollar
industry it has spawned appear to be here to stay in California.
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news. bbc.co.uk/ go/pr/fr/ -/2/hi/americas/ 8275794.stm