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California Politics Go To Pot

— The San Diego Board of Supervisors took a stand this week on legalizing marijuana in California. The supervisors voted against it. Unanimously. But drive a few hundred miles north and visit the Oakland City Council. They voted in favor of legalization. Unanimously.

The subject comes up because we’ll be voting this November on the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, a.k.a. Proposition 19. Up until now, marijuana has been legal in California for medicinal uses only. But Prop. 19 would allow the cultivation, sale and use of pot for any reason you desire.

Supporters of legalizing marijuana say passing Prop. 19 could solve a host of social and economic problems.

It would remedy our state budget disaster by generating a huge amount of sales tax revenue. It would free up cops and D.A.’s to arrest and jail dangerous criminals because they wouldn’t waste their time prosecuting people who sell marijuana. So, legalizing the stuff would make us our state richer and safer, not to mention more happy and blissful.

The march toward legalizing marijuana in California began 14 years ago with the passage of Prop. 215, which allowed for medical use. Unfortunately Prop. 215 has been nothing but trouble. It put state law in direct conflict with federal law, which does not allow any sale or use of marijuana. The proposition was also badly written. It’s short and vague, and it’s required years of legislative work to try to clarify it for practical use.

Here’s my take on medical marijuana: If cannabis has medicinal value, and some studies show that it has, we already have a tested institution for selling prescription medicine. It’s called a pharmacy. In the ideal world we'd throw out Prop. 215, make sure marijuana clears all of the legal hurdles to get approved for medical use, let doctors prescribe it to worthy patients and let patients pick it up at their local drug store.

Special Feature The Marijuana State

KPBS investigates Prop. 19, a ballot initiative that would make recreational use of marijuana legal and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate the sale of the drug. "The Marijuana State" will air Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 9 p.m. on KPBS Television.

If, on the other hand, California voters decide to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use by passing Prop. 19, it’s a whole new ballgame and (I assume) a whole new fight between the state and the feds.

Last year, Obama’s justice department said they’d look the other way if marijuana use was allowed under state laws, and they would not enforce federal prohibitions. But that policy was made with the understanding that any legal marijuana use was medicinal. If people are selling and smoking pot just to get stoned the feds may get over their case of couch lock and start enforcing their laws.

Also, I wonder… If California unilaterally legalizes marijuana use and cultivation, would that reduce the influence of illegal drug cartels -- as Prop. 19 supporters suppose -- or would it create a profitable and protected market for them in California?

It’s possible that smoking pot will be no different from taking a shot of whiskey fifty years from now. There may be no good reason to use recreational drugs, but humans always have and they always will. Some people say getting drunk or high is fundamentally no different from kids, on a playground, spinning around until they get dizzy. Changing consciousness is a fundamental human desire, and drugs are a risky but convenient way to do that.

Let’s just think twice -- and even thrice -- before we make a new drug an accepted part of our culture. We may have enough already.

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