Smoke weed, help the state? Marijuana would be sold and taxed openly in California to adults 21 and older if legislation proposed Monday is signed into law.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said his bill could generate big bucks for a cash-starved state while freeing police to focus on worse crimes.
"I think there's a mentality throughout the state and the country that this isn't the highest priority and that maybe we should start to reassess," he said.
Board of Equalization Chairwoman Betty Yee released a statement Monday supporting Assembly Bill 390 as a way to help law enforcement set priorities while raising new revenues. AB 390 could generate roughly $1.3 billion per year from marijuana sales, according to board estimates.
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Critics counter that it makes no sense for a Legislature that is so concerned about health that it has restricted use of trans fats in restaurants to legalize the smoking of a potentially harmful drug.
"I think substance abuse is just ruining our society," said Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley. "I can't support that."
"I think it's a slippery slope," Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R- Modesto, said of easing pot laws. "We'll do everything we can to defeat it."
Medical use of marijuana is legal in California, but the new legislation would go a step further by allowing recreational use.
AB 390 would charge cannabis wholesalers $5,000 initially and $2,500 annually for the right to distribute weed. Retail outlets would pay fees of $50 per ounce of cannabis to generate revenue for drug education programs statewide.
The bill would prohibit cannabis near schools. It also would ban smoking it in public places or growing it in public view.
Before California could sell marijuana openly, however, it would have to persuade the federal government to alter its prohibition on pot.
Ammiano said that such a change in federal law might be possible because President Barack Obama several years ago expressed a desire to consider decriminalizing marijuana.
If the federal ban is not lifted, AB 390 would prohibit state and local officers from assisting federal agencies in enforcing marijuana laws or making arrests for cultivating, selling, possessing, transporting or using the drug.
Marijuana's supporters and critics often argue over whether pot poses risks.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy contends that short-term effects of marijuana use can range from memory loss to anxiety and increased heart rate.
The state attorney general's office declined to comment Monday on AB 390, as did the U.S. Justice Department and federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
California reported 16,124 felony and 57,995 misdemeanor arrests linked to marijuana in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.