Bill To Legalize Pot Gains Traction In California

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has a bill that would make marijuana a legal commodity in the Golden State. While some call it a pipe dream, there are at least a few signs that the idea of legal pot in California may be gaining support.

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A little more recent history now. Back in 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and now one state legislator wants to make all pot legal. He's a freshman lawmaker from, you guessed it, San Francisco, and as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, he's no stranger to controversy.

RICHARD GONZALES: Tom Ammiano has represented San Francisco in the state assembly for only four months, so he isn't yet well-known in Sacramento. But as a former San Francisco supervisor, he was hard to miss.

The flamboyant former teacher and stand-up comedian is famous for mixing humor with his politics, as in this rally for gay rights.

Assemblyman TOM AMMIANO (Democrat, California): The right wing says if you're queer, you're sick. Everybody on Monday, call into work and say, I can't come in. I'm feeling a little sick.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONZALES: Now, Ammiano is operating in the more sedate halls of the state capitol. And practically upon his arrival, he introduced a bill to legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use. Ammiano says the war on drugs is a failure, and decriminalizing pot makes economic sense at a time when state coffers are empty.

Asm. AMMIANO: The estimations are $14-billion crop in California alone, and our taxing body estimates from that, a minimum of $1.5 billion in taxes.

GONZALES: Not everybody buys that estimate. Still, under Ammiano's bill, pot could only be sold to adults, and you couldn't grow or smoke it in public view. And like alcohol, driving under its influence would be a no-no.

The mere idea of legalizing pot has always been known as a third rail in politics, but now it appears to be gaining a tiny bit of traction, according to recent polls. Currently, 13 states have medical marijuana laws, and the Obama administration has signaled a more lenient attitude towards dispensaries in those states. And even conservative pundit Glenn Beck of Fox News has joined the debate on legalization.

Mr. GLENN BECK (Political Commentator): Look, I'm a libertarian. You want to legalize marijuana, you want to legalize drugs, that's fine. We have to have a different conversation in America.

GONZALES: But President Obama has made it clear he doesn't support legalizing pot, and Ammiano is the first to say he doesn't expect to win this battle anytime soon.

Asm. AMMIANO: Polls are looking good. So you know, I just want to be very strategic about this, not put anyone on the spot.

GONZALES: But his effort begs the question, is a first-time lawmaker from notoriously liberal San Francisco the right soldier to champion the legalization of pot?

Mr. A.G. BLOCK (Associate Director, University of California Center Sacramento): Well, it's not Nixon going to China.

GONZALES: A.G. Block is the associate director of UC Center, Sacramento.

Mr. BLOCK: Would it be better if, you know, some conservative Republican from Riverside County was carrying this? Oh yeah, sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That would be better because you break down some of the stereotypical opposition to it.

GONZALES: But Ammiano's supporters say that beyond his self-deprecating wit, there is a hard-nosed politico who knows how to get deals done. He not only championed liberal causes such as domestic partner and universal health care laws, but also middle of the road budget issues such as insisting that San Francisco keep a rainy day reserve fund for economic bad times like now.

But legalizing pot could be a legislative brick wall. Ammiano says many conservative lawmakers in Sacramento have told him privately that they think it's a good idea but aren't ready yet to go public. And when asked how he'll win over their support, Ammiano replies, don't underestimate me.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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