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Ahead of state-wide vote, marijuana legalization battle heats up in California

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Far from being a war between hippies and police, the fight to legalize marijuana in California centers on whether decriminalizing and taxing cannabis can help fill the state’s fiscal hole.

Using the drug for medical purposes has been legal for 14 years in the western state. But a new initiative that will appear on the ballot in November elections is seeking to legalize recreational marijuana use.

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The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 would let cities and counties adopt ordinances authorizing the cultivation, transportation and sale of marijuana, and tax its sale just like it taxes alcohol and cigarettes.

Supporters are hoping the potential tax windfall will help garner support for the measure at a time when California is suffering from a crippling budget crisis.

The debate is heating up, with supporters and opponents investing millions of dollars in their cause amid rising concerns the campaign could have a nationwide impact on relaxing drug laws.

“Due to the economic downturn voters realize we cannot afford to waste money locking up people for something that is safer than alcohol,” said Salwa Ibrahim, executive assistant at Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, which holds classes to train students to grow pot and run marijuana businesses.

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Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee, a well-known marijuana activist who founded the school in 2007, paid 1.3 million dollars to sponsor the campaign to place marijuana legalization on the ballot in November, when Californians will also choose a new governor to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That made the school the initiative’s main sponsor. Ibrahim noted that most of the funds came from student tuition and from other activists who support controlling and taxing cannabis.

“We are getting more supporters every day,” Ibrahim told AFP, pointing to polls that show 56 percent of California voters back the initiative. “The demographic that supports this initiative ranges from all ages, races and cultures. There is no typical supporter.”

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According to Ibrahim, voters also saw a link between Mexico’s bloody drug war, which has killed more than 15,000 people in the past three years, and cannabis prohibition.

Activists estimate that California could earn 1.5 billion dollars in excise taxes, and save another billion dollars currently spent on law enforcement and prisons by legalizing cannabis. They also point to earnings for marijuana-linked businesses.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in California estimated the total economic impact of such a move at $13 billion or more. On top of revenues from marijuana as a recreational substance, “Industrial hemp could also become a major business, comparable to the $3.4 billion cotton industry in California,” the group notes.

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Legalization proponents say marijuana possession arrests have risen dramatically in California over the past two decades.

Critics insist the measure will raise virtually no tax money.

“I am confident that we will defeat it in November,” John Lovell of the California Peace Officers’ Association, said of the initiative, claiming there is “shrinking” support for marijuana legalization. Polls, however, would suggest differently with an Angus Reid sampling published in December showing a first-ever majority of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. That trend is up from other recent polls, all of which indicate a sea-change in public opinion in favor of legalization.

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According to Lovell, a lobbyist representing several law enforcement groups opposing the initiative, “drug use among children will rise, highway fatalities will increase, crime will generally rise and the state will lose billions in federal dollars” if the measure passes.

While the measure does not levy a state-wide tax, it does allow counties and communities to set their own rules for how the sale and consumption of cannabis is regulated. Another popular proposal would have created a per-ounce excise tax of $50 across the state, which could have created $1.4 billion in new revenue, according to the California State Board of Equalization.

Lovell’s claim that children will use the drug at an increasing rate is seemingly contradicted by a University of California study published in 2003, where researchers sought to compare marijuana policies in the Netherlands to the United States. The study found that decriminalization did not drive up rates of usage in the general population.

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Legalization advocates, meanwhile, point to the fact that subjecting the drug to public regulation would make it more difficult for young people to obtain being that drug dealers do not ask for age verification.

Both sides are confident they will succeed in November, but Lovell acknowledged that legalization supporters have more funds for now.

“We will raise enough money to defeat the measure. The proponents will raise more money, but we will win,” he vowed.

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Zachary Risner of the Cannabis Club Network said regulating and taxing cannabis “makes much more sense” than spending millions each year on marijuana arrests and prosecution.

“The financial benefits and job creation benefits alone should be enough to impact each voter at the ballot box this November,” he said.

Under the measure, people aged 21 and older could own up to one ounce (28 grams) of pot for personal use. Possessing an ounce or less of marijuana has been a misdemeanor with fines of 100 dollars since 1975, when a law was passed that reduced tougher penalties.

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It would also allow adults to grow up to 25 square feet (two square meters) of cannabis per residence or parcel.

President Obama has said that he in no way supports legalization of marijuana and does not believe it is a viable option to grow states’ economies. Though his drug czar swept into Washington declaring an end to the “drug war” and promising a new focus on treatment over prison, the Office on National Drug Control Policy’s 2011 funding highlights show an increasing tide of enforcement and punishment dollars when compared to funds dedicated to rehabilitative measures.

California will be the second state to hold a popular vote on legalization. Colorado was the first in 2006, although the measure was defeated by a popular vote of 60-40 percent against legalization.

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With AFP.

Correction: A prior version of this article said California would be the first state to hold a popular vote on marijuana legalization.

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