Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's choice of Cinco de Mayo to light up the legalized marijuana debate intrigues, given that the 1937 law first outlawing the plant was prompted largely by racist fears of Mexican immigrants, who, along with "Negro" musicians, were portrayed as being both horribly addicted to the "killer weed" and compelled to "push" its usage on lily-white, post-jazz age innocents. (Less glamorously, so did timber, paper and pharmaceutical interests play their own self-serving roles in promoting pot's prohibition.)
Consequently, the nation deprived itself of revenues from a ridiculously profitable tax-free luxury item. Today, it's estimated that marijuana generates at least $36 billion yearly in the United States, much of which is or could be grown, sold and taxed here in California. Add to that the costs of drug war propaganda, law enforcement, courts, attorneys and incarcerations; and the incalculable costs to families and communities of the tens of thousands of productive lives lost to the prison-industrial complex.
Now it seems legalization of recreational marijuana is gaining national traction and momentum, particularly here in California. A recent Field Poll finds that 56 percent of California voters now favor the legalization and taxation of marijuana. President Obama's new drug czar has banished the iconic phrase "war on drugs" and, on May 18, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging California's medical marijuana laws.
Last February, California assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced AB390, a bill designed to regulate recreational marijuana use. Should it pass statehouse muster, Ammiano's legislation would legalize personal cultivation of as many as 10 marijuana plants for every person 21 years of age and older. It's unclear whether these homegrown plants could or would be taxed. However, should the next step be into the retail arena, the State Board of Equalization expects yearly state tax revenues to add $1.3 billion to California's coffers.
The supreme irony of all this is that Great Depression legislation outlawing pot use may ultimately be scuttled because so many of the socioeconomically well-heeled citizenry that these laws were, at least officially, designed to protect, have increasingly developed wine-connoisseur-like tastes for ever-pricier marijuana. The rationale is that their tax dollars might help plug this Next Great Depression's economic dike. Still, when a prominent governor from the very party that's flogged the 40-year "war on drugs" for votes, money and political power hoists the white flag, the issue transcends moral irony. Legalizing pot has transmogrified, it seems, into hardnosed fiscal policy.