SACRAMENTO — Marijuana legalization advocates and law enforcement officials duked it out in a three-hour legislative hearing Wednesday on whether making the drug legal under state law would be good public policy.

Advocates said legalization and regulation could bring as much as $1.4 billion in state and local excise and sales tax revenue per year; control the drug's potency; do more to keep it out of children's hands; and end a centurylong double standard in which alcohol and tobacco — which they say are more harmful — are legal while marijuana isn't, leading to a war on drugs particularly destructive to people of color.

Law enforcement officials testified the harms caused by marijuana legalization would far outweigh whatever tax revenue it might bring — more, not less, use by children; more people driving under the influence, causing more injuries and deaths; decreased worker productivity that could hurt the economy; and a still-thriving black market.

The hearing was convened by Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who earlier this year introduced a bill to legalize and tax marijuana under a system not unlike that used for alcohol. Even as several proposed ballot measures for legalization seek to qualify for next year's ballot, Ammiano is rewriting his bill to bring it forward again in January, and Wednesday's hearing was supposed to help him gather input for that revamp.


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First up Wednesday were the Legislative Analyst's Office, which said state and local law enforcement could save "several tens of millions of dollars each year" by no longer pursuing marijuana cases, and the Board of Equalization, which has estimated $1.4 billion in annual revenue from taxes on legalized marijuana.

Then came the lawyers. Drug Policy Alliance staff attorney Tamar Todd and American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Allen Hopper testified California is free to criminalize or not criminalize whatever it wants, and can and should chart its own course as a laboratory for new social and economic policy.

But Martin Mayer, general counsel to the California Peace Officers' Association and the California Police Chiefs Association, underscored there would be no protection from federal law enforcement agencies arresting, charging and prosecuting Californians for violating the federal marijuana ban.

California Peace Officers' Association President John Standish said there's "no way marijuana legalization could protect or promote society — in fact, it radically diminishes it" by impairing educational ability, worker productivity, traffic safety and drug-related crime rates.

Ammiano asked whether police resources now used to fight marijuana would be better spent fighting harder, more harmful drugs such as methamphetamine.

"That's like, 'When did you stop beating your wife?'"‰" Standish replied, calling marijuana and methamphetamine "both equally critical problems our society needs to address."

Sara Simpson, acting assistant chief of the state Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said much of California's major marijuana cultivation is run by Mexican drug cartels on remote public lands, and she recited a litany of violent and deadly clashes with armed guards at such sites. Such growing operations also are environmentally devastating, she said, and produce marijuana far more potent than that used just years ago. There's no reason to believe the cartels would adhere to state laws on cultivation, potency and taxation any more than they adhere to prohibition now, she said.

Rosalie Pacula, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at renowned think-tank RAND Corp., said prohibition has kept marijuana prices high, and legalization with heavy taxation that elevates marijuana's price far above the cost of its production will lead to a thriving black market.

But Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Executive Director Dan Macallair said arrest statistics from the past 20 years show California law enforcement is far more focused on prosecuting simple possession and use than cultivation and sales. Various counties are more or less tolerant of marijuana use, he said, a lack of consistency and continuity that could be solved by regulation.

And retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray said the state can allow and regulate marijuana without condoning its use just like alcohol and tobacco, but any legalization legislation must ban advertising lest marijuana use become glamorized.