A standing-room only crowd gathered in Sacramento Wednesday for a three-hour hearing to discuss legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.
Yeah, seriously, legalizing marijuana.
But this wasn't a group of long-haired college kids hanging out passing the bong around. This was a serious group of professionals (and some pot smokers) discussing a proposal by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano from San Francisco, who has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers behind the push for new laws regarding the use of pot.
Both sides of the debate were heard, but Ammiano has long had his mind made up.
Before the hearing, Ammiano called the criminalization of marijuana a failed policy that denies the state significant revenue. He said the bill could put the state in a position to set the national agenda on pot.
"I think we have a real shot at it, particularly in the context of it being in some ways bigger than California," Ammiano said.
His bill would tax and regulate marijuana in the state much like alcohol. Adults 21 and older could legally possess, grow and sell marijuana. The state would charge a $50-per-ounce fee and a 9 percent tax on retail sales. Oakland is the first city in the country to take advantage of pot sales. Voters there approved a 1.8 percent sales tax on medical cannabis businesses in a special election.
Legal experts on both sides also agreed at the informational hearing that nothing in current federal law can prevent California from stripping criminal penalties for marijuana from its own books.
"If California decides to legalize marijuana, there's nothing in the Constitution that stands in its way," said Tamar Todd, a staff attorney for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.
Speakers at the hearing argued a number of issues, including whether legalization would increase or decrease crime and help or hurt children.
California already has some of the loosest rules in the country on marijuana for medical use under Proposition 215. The Compassionate Use Act, passed by voters in 1996, allows patients with a valid doctor's recommendation to qualify for a medical marijuana card.
Ammiano's bill would be up for vote next year and if it passes, would take effect in 2011.