Marijuana legalization set for Calif. ballot

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)--Voters in California will decide in November whether to make their state the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Opposition, meanwhile, is mounting from law enforcement and Mexican government officials.

Organizers of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 collected more than enough signatures to place the question on this year's ballot alongside the choice for the state's next governor.

The ballot measure would allow California residents age 21 and older to grow marijuana in a 5-by-5-foot household space and to possess or transport up to 1 ounce. The proposed law would prohibit the possession of marijuana on school grounds, using it in public, smoking it while minors are present or providing it to anyone under 21 years of age.

Cities and counties would be allowed to impose a tax on the sale of the drug, constituting perhaps the most popular selling point for the argument: an aid to the state's economic stress.

The New York Times noted that unlike a similar failed California ballot measure in 1972, supporters of this initiative are pushing the tax incentives over assertions of the drug's harmlessness.

However, John Standish, president of the California Peace Officers Association, told The Times that legalizing recreational marijuana is not in the best interest of the state.

"We just don't think any good is going to come from this," Standish said. "It's not going to better society. It's going to denigrate it."

Law enforcement officials, he said, have enough trouble now with drunk drivers on the road, and he expects the legalization of marijuana to add to the problems.

"I cannot think of one crime scene I've been to where people said, 'Thank God the person was just under the influence of marijuana,'" Standish told The Times.

California's push to legalize marijuana and a string of 13 other states that permit use of the drug for medical purposes have drawn words of caution from government leaders in Mexico.

Fernando Gomez Mont, Mexico's secretary of the interior, in March called the United States' medical marijuana trend "worrisome" and said it "complicates in a grave way" efforts to curb Mexico's overwhelming drug-related violence, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Lorenzo Meyer Cossio, a Mexican historian and commentator, said the government of President Felipe Calderon "feels offended" by the states' loosening of drug laws, the newspaper said, especially when the United States for the past half-century has pressured Mexico to strengthen its enforcement.

A report released by the U.S. Justice Department in March indicated that marijuana production in Mexico is soaring while law enforcement officials turn their attention to fighting the violence rooted in drug cartels.

"It is inevitable that if this occurs in California, a neighboring state that is so important to us, that there will be repercussions here," Cossio said, according to The Bee.

Under the proposed legalization, licensed retailers would be permitted to sell 1 ounce of marijuana at a time, and advocates say the business could raise more than $1 billion yearly for the state, which is facing a $20 billion deficit.

"We need the tax money," Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, a trade school for marijuana growers, and a major backer of the petition drive, told The Times. "Second, we need the tax savings on police and law enforcement, and have that law enforcement directed towards real crime."

Supporters of marijuana legalization claim that time and resources are being wasted on enforcing California's current marijuana restrictions.

"If passed, this initiative would offer a welcome change to California's miserable status quo marijuana policy," Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, said in a news release March 24.

"Our current marijuana laws are failing California. Year after year, prohibition forces police to spend time chasing down nonviolent marijuana offenders while tens of thousands of violent crimes go unsolved -- all while marijuana use and availability remain unchanged," Smith said.

The Marijuana Policy Project said that in 2008, more than 78,000 Californians were arrested on marijuana charges, which is more than for any other offense. In 1996, California was the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, touching off a nationwide trend. Marijuana has been prohibited under federal law since 1937.

One poll last year showed 56 percent of California residents support legalizing marijuana, but all three of the leading candidates for governor oppose legalization.

"I've already indicated that that's not a provision I am likely to support," Jerry Brown, the state's attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor, told a group of law enforcement officials in Sacramento.

Former eBay president Meg Whitman, the leading Republican candidate, said she believes the state has enough challenges without heading down the path of drug legalization, and Steve Poizner, another Republican hopeful, said he prefers tax cuts over "an attempt to smoke our way out of the budget deficit," The Sacramento Bee reported.

In related news, the Marijuana Policy Project has called for a boycott of Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, after an employee at its Battle Creek, Mich., store was fired last fall for failing a drug test.

Joseph Casias, a 29-year-old cancer survivor, was named the store's associate of the year in 2008 but lost his job because he used marijuana for medical purposes. Michigan is one of 14 states that allow such use, but Wal-Mart terminated his employment when they detected the drug in his system.

Casias then drew unemployment before Wal-Mart challenged his eligibility for benefits. Under pressure, Wal-Mart withdrew its objection and Casias, who had worked for the store for five years, was free to receive government compensation again.

"This is just an unfortunate situation all around," Anna Taylor, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart, said in a statement to Baptist Press. "We are sympathetic to Mr. Casias' condition, but like other companies, we have to consider the overall safety of our customers and associates, including Mr. Casias, when making a difficult decision like this.

"As more states allow this treatment, employers are left without any guidelines except the federal standard," Taylor said. "Until further guidance is available, we will always default to what we believe is the safest environment for our associates and customers."


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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