Reefer-tax madness

Today’s culture warriors have better things to argue about than pot-smoking hippies, yet federal marijuana laws are still stuck in the Nixon-era days when conservatives feared that reefer madness was destroying the minds of America’s youth. Amid that time warp, efforts by California and other states to nudge Washington in the direction of more sensible drug laws have largely been welcome. But whether or not you’re in the camp that thinks marijuana should be legalized, a proposal to regulate and tax its sale as a way of helping to balance California’s budget is an idea whose time has not come.

A bill from Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco -- where else?) that would do precisely that was introduced Monday. It would, first, decriminalize the possession and sale of marijuana under state law, and, second, set up a system for regulating and taxing it. The sales and taxation part only happens, though, if the federal government decriminalizes marijuana too, or at least allows states to make their own decisions about the drug.

Ammiano and his supporters argue that the state is losing out on more than $1 billion a year in tax revenues because its biggest cash crop, marijuana, is illegal and therefore not taxable. Further, they argue that by passing the law, the state would send a strong message to Congress and the Obama administration about revisiting federal marijuana policies.

It is almost beyond dispute that the federal laws are unjustified by science or common sense. Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no medical use and cannot be prescribed by a physician. The many medical uses of marijuana are well documented, and it is not nearly as addictive or intoxicating as less-restricted Schedule 2 drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Moreover, the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, can be sold in pill form as a Schedule 3 drug. So what makes the plant so dangerous?

The problem with Ammiano’s bill, AB 390, is that it would only widen the gray area between California and federal laws on medical marijuana. Though the state’s acceptance of medicinal marijuana has brought many public benefits, it also has resulted in even more illicit cultivation in places such as Humboldt County, as well as legal and regulatory chaos. AB 390 would do nothing to increase tax revenues in the absence of federal action, and would probably only further enrich the state’s marijuana black market.

The Obama administration should reexamine the Controlled Substances Act because it’s the right thing to do, not because of an ill-considered taxation scheme from California.