Ammiano calls for pot tax to ease budget gap
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill this week that would tax and regulate marijuana in California.
The move Monday, February 23 by the freshman legislator made for plenty of jokes on TV news and elsewhere, but Ammiano is serious, and noted that legalizing marijuana would pump over $1 billion into depleted state coffers and save money spent by law enforcement and prisons.
Assembly Bill 390 – the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act – would create a regulatory structure similar to that used for beer, wine, and liquor.
"This legislation would generate much needed revenue for the state, restrict access to only those over 21, end the environmental damage to our public lands from illicit crops, and improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes," Ammiano said in a statement. "California has the opportunity to be the first state in the nation to enact a smart, responsible public policy for the control and regulation of marijuana."
The move would also help with the state's finances, Ammiano suggested.
"With the state in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the move toward regulating and taxing marijuana is simply common sense," he said.
The Legislature approved a plan last week to close a $42 billion budget deficit.
According to the state Board of Equalization, increased consumption of marijuana resulting from the legislation could lead to an annual revenue gain of about $1 billion, based on a proposed $50 per ounce levy on retail pot sales. There could also be $349 million in increased sales tax revenues.
"I support this legislation because I feel this issue should be the subject of legislative and public debate," San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey said in the statement released by Ammiano's office.
Despite that support, even if such a bill made it through the Legislature, it's unlikely Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would sign it.
Rachel Cameron, the governor's deputy press secretary, said Schwarzenegger doesn't generally take a position until a bill reaches his desk, but she said, "It does sound like something that he would not support. We're generally opposed to legalizing drugs."
California already has a more liberal stance on marijuana than most states. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 215, which exempts patients who possess or grow marijuana for medical treatment recommended by a physician from criminal laws.
Since 1996, 12 other states have similar medical cannabis laws on their books. The federal government, however, does not recognize them. Ammiano, who is openly gay, has long been an advocate of medical marijuana.
Ammiano's proposed legislation was endorsed by the Marijuana Policy Project and the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, two leading advocacy groups.
Phillip Alden, who uses marijuana to ease the pain of nerve injury caused by AIDS, said Ammiano's proposed legislation would help.
"Anything that advances the conversation and anything that legitimizes marijuana is a step forward, in my opinion," said Alden, a 45-year-old former San Francisco resident who now lives in Redwood City.
Other budget news
Although the state is facing tough times, the budget approved by lawmakers last week doesn't contain cuts to HIV/AIDS services, including the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, according to Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's policy and legislative associate.
However, the budget did not fund a cost-of-living-adjustment for California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS), a welfare program that gives cash aid and services to eligible needy California families, or for Supplemental Security Income or State Supplementary Payments, "so over the next 16 months that this budget plan will remain in effect, inflation is likely to reduce the true value of these important benefits," Mulhern-Pearson wrote in an e-mail.
She added that the budget plan "still depends on voter approval of $5.8 billion in revenue raising measures that will be the subject of several ballot measures in a special election on May 19, so it is important for those of us in the HIV/AIDS advocacy community to stay active on these state budget issues."
Anne Donnelly, director of health care policy for Project Inform, indicated there was some good news for people receiving Medi-Cal.
Donnelly wrote in an e-mail that "From the best of our knowledge now, many if not all ... Medi-Cal cuts are off the table for all intents and purposes."
Total reductions for Medi-Cal had been estimated at $1.1 billion approximately through June 2010. The program provides health care to low-income people, including many who are living with AIDS.
The federal stimulus bill recently passed by Congress holds that states must keep Medicaid spending at the same levels it was as of July 1,2008 in order to receive the stimulus funding, wrote Donnelly.
Tom DiSanto, who works in the budget and analysis division of the city controller's office, said they're still reviewing the state budget and he didn't have any specific information about how it will impact the city.
Even after cuts made this year, the city's deficit for 2009-10 has been estimated at about $460 million. DiSanto said that figure will fluctuate.
It's been estimated that the city's Department of Public Health will need to cut $100 million from its budget for the same period.