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Reefer Madness: Let's Roll

California voters will decide pot question in November

By Jordan Smith, Fri., April 2, 2010

Reefer Madness: Let's Roll

On March 25, California officials cleared the way for voters in November to decide whether to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana sales to adults over the age of 21.

Backers of the measure collected some 695,000 signatures, far more than the 434,000 required to qualify for a spot on the ballot. This will be only the second time in recent years that such a measure will be put to a statewide vote, and it's the first time that such a measure has a very real likelihood of passing. Indeed, in a statewide Field Poll conducted last spring, 56% of Califor­ni­ans said they would favor legalizing marijuana for "recreational use" and taxing the proceeds.

Although the move toward legalization may be most aggressive in the Golden State – fueled in part by its serious economic woes – a handful of other states are also currently considering relaxing state pot prohibitions, either by passing decriminalization measures or by adding legal medi-pot laws to the books.

In South Dakota, advocates for legalized medical marijuana have collected more than 32,000 signatures in an effort to get a medi-pot measure onto the November ballot – more than twice the number required. This isn't S.D.'s first go-round with medical marijuana: Advocates there have been fighting for such a measure for more than a decade. One such measure made it onto the ballot in 2006 and lost by just 4% – the only state to have a medi-pot measure lose at election, notes the Drug Reform Coordination Net­work. The measure had an uphill battle in part because state lawmakers jacked with the language of the proposal (an attempt, advocates said, to scare voters into voting no – including a suggestion that if the measure passed kids could get legal access to the drug – which apparently worked, at least to some degree) and in part because former President George W. Bush's Office of Nation­al Drug Control Policy dispatched minions to the Black Hills to fight the measure. Certainly that won't happen this year, which might help get the measure over the 50% mark – though it does seem likely that state lawmakers still frown upon the idea, which would allow qualified patients to possess up to 1 ounce of usable pot. A legislative medi-pot proposal in 2009 was killed in a Senate subcommittee on a 9-5 vote.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, which has already legalized medi-pot, lawmakers are recommending that the state decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of pot by adults. The recommendation comes from a special Senate commission empaneled last year, headed up by Dem Sen. Joshua Miller. In a report released this month, the panel concluded that "marijuana law reform will not only benefit the state from a budget perspective" – a savings of up to $12.7 million per year – "but would also avoid costly arrests or incarcerations due to simple possession of marijuana." Eleven of the 13-member commission – made up of state lawmakers, representatives of the public at large and the medi-pot patient community, a representative of the state nurses association, and academics including Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron, who determined in a 2008 study that legalizing drugs could save the country $44.1 billion per year and pump into the economy as much as $32.7 billion per year in tax money – voted in favor of the recommendations; only two, both representing law enforcement, voted against them. The commission's recommendations now move to the full Senate for consideration.

But it's not all lovely in the land of pot-law reform: In Illinois, lawmakers in March passed a law that would amend the state's drug paraphernalia law to include tobacco leaves used to roll cigars – aka "blunt wraps." There's no legitimate purpose for selling the wraps, proponents of the bills argue. (A Senate measure passed that body, and a House measure passed that chamber's Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a floor vote.) That is, of course, unless you like to roll your own tobacco. But that apparently hasn't occurred to lawmakers who see pot as the only substance one might roll up to smoke. Not to mention that commercially made cigars and cigarillos and, of course, blunts filled with tobacco come wrapped that way, too.

Go figure.

For more "Reefer Madness," see the archive at austinchronicle.com/reefermadness.

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