Ballot initiative would tax marijuana like wine

"We're taking something that's unregulated and we're replacing it with a known successful program implemented by the California alcohol beverage control board," said co-author Steve Kubby, who also helped draft and promote Proposition 215, California's first medical cannabis law. "We know it works great with wine. It's already in place."

The measure [PDF] currently is written to exempt people from permitting fees who are growing up to 25 plants, but Kubby said he and others have decided to amend that to 12 plants per parcel. Commercial growers exceeding that limit would be subject to regulations and fees similar to those for grape farmers. Those selling cannabis products would be taxed and regulated under state rules that currently apply to wine and other alcoholic beverages, with an exception for hemp products with no hallucinogenic properties.

"If you're going to treat it like wine, you have to have an exemption for people who make their own wine or make their own cannabis," Kubby said. "Now, if they sell it, then they have to pay tax on it. The intent really is for your own stash at home."

The initiative also bars state government and law enforcement officials from assisting the federal government in prosecuting individuals for marijuana use or cultivation.

"We all understand that federal law will trump state law in this regard," said Jim Gray, a former judge and co-author of the measure. "So we're telling the federal government, 'We know you can enforce it, but if you're going to, you have to do it by yourself. And by the way, you're going to have to come to a jury of Californians, and I think getting a conviction would be problematic.' "

Concerns over federal opposition helped defeat Proposition 19 [PDF], a measure on a 2010 ballot that would have legalized cannabis, said Dale Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. She said the group has been collecting polling data in preparation for an initiative of its own.

"We asked for a tremendous amount of feedback," she said, explaining that many people were apathetic about Prop. 19 because they believed federal intervention would have been inevitable. She also said the campaign was significantly hurt because it didn't have have the full backing of the medical cannabis community.

The Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act prohibits commercial advertising for the sale or use of marijuana, but exempts medical cannabis. And the initiative explicitly states that it would "not repeal, modify, or change" Prop. 215 or any related laws.

"We're not touching anything that goes on with medical," Kubby said. "That stays the way it is. We don't touch that. If it's a medical grow and they sell to a dispensary, that's outside of our initiative."

Jones said the Prop. 19 campaign tried similar tactics but was unsuccessful. She said there is a common fear among medical cannabis dispensary owners and the people who grow for them that legalization would hurt their business.

"We did have some (medical cannabis) growers that understood that their profit margin wasn't worth putting people in prison, but I don't know if we will ever get them all," she said. "I'd rather focus on getting the mainstream voters. The growers could vote yes, go legit, continue to make a living, and also pay a little more in taxes for their kids' public education."

Gray also sees the challenge of getting the medical cannabis community's vote. But he said he thinks the initiative can win without their support.

"Yes, some people presently in the medical marijuana dispensary business will vote against our initiative because they want to protect their market share," he said. "And from an economic standpoint, they may be right. But the vast number of people who are involved in this, from a patient standpoint, from a law enforcement standpoint, from a parental standpoint, they will see the benefits from the strictly regulated sale of marijuana. And they will vote for this if we do our jobs right."

The Legislative Analyst's Office said that depending on the response of the federal government, the proposed law could save tens of millions of dollars annually by lowering incarceration rates and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.

In June, U.S. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Barney Frank of Massachusetts introduced legislation that would allow states to tax and regulate cannabis without interference from the federal government. However, as California Watch recently reported, the Department of Justice has intensified its efforts to crack down on cannabis production in California.

Supporters have until Dec. 19 to collect the more than a half-million signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot. If passed in the November 2012 election, using cannabis while driving a car or at work, or providing cannabis to a minor, would remain illegal.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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