Legalizing pot could save California hundreds of millions every year, state says

December 27, 2013
Marijuana legislation abounds, as of Sept. 22, 2013. (Credit: Thomson Reuters' WestlawNext.)
Marijuana legislation abounds  as of Sept. 22, 2013. (Thomson Reuters’ WestlawNext)

A proposed ballot measure that would legalize possession, use, growth and cultivation of marijuana would save the state of California hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to a summary issued Thursday by the state attorney general’s office.

The summary [pdf], which Attorney General Kamala Harris’s (D) office releases for each proposed ballot measure, says the state would save “in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually” on law enforcement costs associated with enforcing marijuana laws.

As an added bonus, Harris’s office said sales tax revenues could add more cash — again, in the “low hundreds of millions of dollars annually” — to the state’s bottom line.

Supporters of the proposed ballot measure would need to collect 504,760 signatures by May 23 to get the initiative — formally known by its ballot title, “Marijuana Legalization. Initiative Statute” — on the 2014 ballot.

The group backing legalization won’t actually be collecting signatures for this version of the bill; the lead sponsor told the San Francisco Chronicle that they had tweaked the initiative’s language to allow individuals to grow more marijuana for personal use. A revised version [pdf] of the ballot initiative, dubbed the “Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014,” is scheduled to be reviewed by the attorney general’s office by the end of January, the Chronicle reported.

Both versions of the measure would legalize the use, growth, cultivation, possession, transportation, storage and sale of marijuana, while creating a commission to regulate and issue business licenses for cultivation and sales.

The measure would apply retail sales taxes to marijuana sold for recreational purposes, while allocating that money equally to education, health care, law enforcement and drug abuse programs. It also prevents state and local law enforcement officials from enforcing federal marijuana laws.

Some California officials who back marijuana legalization had urged fellow supporters to wait until 2016, when the electorate will be larger, younger and more ethnically diverse, to put a measure on the fall ballot. But the ballot summary is so favorable that strategists think they will be able to pass the measure even in the lower-turnout midterm year.

California has been in the vanguard of the pro-marijuana movement. The state was the first in the country to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes, back in 1996. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed legislation decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less.

If the ballot measure passes, California would be the third state to legalize marijuana, along with Washington and Colorado, where voters legalized the drug through ballot measures this year.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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