Ammiano ready to advance pot legalization bill

Marijuana legalization is picking up public-policy steam in California, Washington state, and across the nation, reform advocates said on a conference call this morning.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Franicsco, said a re-vamped version of his AB 390, to decriminalize, regulate and tax marijuana, will be heard by his committee Jan. 12 before heading to the Health Committee “and we do expect very, very positive results.”

“We’re very excited about this issue, it has gained a lot of traction, the political will seems to be there and it does have a populist dimension as evidenced by our initiative process,” Ammiano said, citing proponents’ announcement earlier this week that they’d easily gathered more than enough petition signatures to put a legalization measure on next November’s ballot.

The initiative’s expected qualification “certainly gets the attention of the Legislature,” Ammiano said. “They’re thinking, ‘Well, if this initiative is going to pass… we’d better start paying attention, we’d better work with it.’ ”

And initiative or not, more lawmakers than ever before see it as a serious public policy issue of conserving scant law enforcement resources, reducing the prison population, using strict regulation to keep the drug out of children’s hands, and creating billions in new revenue for the cash-strapped state’s coffers, Ammiano said: “The Legislature itself is becoming more and more ‘user-friendly.’”

More on Washington State’s similar bill and the national scene, after the jump…

Washington State House Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, a co-sponsor of a similar bill, was on this morning’s call as well, saying his state is “following the lead of California, I guess that’s no great surprise.”

“This bill is a work in progress,” he said. “For example, I’m not sure for instance if I’m comfortable with marijuana being sold in the same place as alcohol. The Dutch don’t do that.”

But Goodman said a public rulemaking process that brings marijuana into a regulatory structure similar to that already imposed on alcohol and prescription drugs will work out the kinks while ensuring public safety.

“We’re trying to make it boring; it’s been sexy for too long,” Goodman said of marijuana. “Let’s talk about regulation rather than prohibition. Prohibition yielded a lot of great TV series, but we can’t afford it anymore.”

Today’s conference call was organized by the Drug Policy Alliance. DPA staff attorney Theshia Naidoo said that although people using marijuana in compliance with these contemplated state laws could still be prosecuted under federal law, the federal government has neither the resources nor the political will to shoulder the burden: About 95 percent of current marijuana arrests are at the state and local level, she said.

Meanwhile, Naidoo said, nothing in federal law requires states to criminalize any particular conduct. While the federal Controlled Substances Act’s ban on marijuana would still exist, its pre-emption of state law is limited to instances in which state law actually requires someone to violate federal law, she said. And the 10th Amendment precludes Congress from directing states to legislate particular issues, or compelling states to enforce federal law.

“One of the goals of federalism is to foster innovation,” she said, noting California and Washington could serve as public-policy labs giving legalization, regulation and taxation a test-drive before the rest of the nation.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.