According to the same state budget analysis, the value of today’s annual marijuana harvest in California is $13.8 billion, making weed one of the state’s biggest export crops. The value of the nation’s entire pot harvest is $35.8 billion, according to the analysis. Since legalized medical cannabis is only a tiny fraction of the market and the dispensaries typically operate as nonprofits, virtually no income tax is collected.

“Our economic situation is egregious,” says Ammiano, who plans to begin conducting hearings this month. “I think people have begun to take it seriously.”

If Ammiano’s bill fails—and many think it’s too much, too soon—pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot next November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old founder of Oaksterdam.

Judge Jim Gray: The legalization wind is at his back
Jeanne Rice
Judge Jim Gray: The legalization wind is at his back

Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes at the three campuses in Los Angeles, Sebastopol (an hour north of San Francisco) and Oakland, where Lee just unveiled a three-story teaching facility. The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered well more than 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid. “The response has been overwhelming,” Lee says.

If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with both Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot. “Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215,” Nadelmann says. “We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It’s not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something’s possible.”

After-effects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the West—especially in Oregon and Washington. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended Seattle’s annual “Hempfest” this past year.

“What’s happening is really amazing,” says Gray. “Everybody, despite their political views, their religious views, their level of education and their age—everybody is beginning to be on the same page because our policy isn’t working.”

Gray can point to a remarkable June event as evidence. In the heart of OC, his pro-legalization stump speech slammed law enforcement for blocking reform because of its own addiction to generous government funding. From a crowd dominated by 60-, 70-, even 80-year-old women sipping tea and eating cake, Gray’s presentation received loud applause.

Whether the “devil weed” will ever play in Peoria is open to debate, but in October, the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months, and pockets of support for pot have become evident elsewhere in the heartland.

California’s actions in 2010 may greatly influence the speed of those campaigns.

*     *     *

Reefer activists readily acknowledge the quickening pace of change raises risks of a backlash. Intense concern already centers on the poorly regulated mess in Los Angeles, where a confused and largely paralyzed City Council has allowed the proliferation of more than 540 medical-marijuana dispensaries without regard to zoning or other restrictions imposed elsewhere in California.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-member California Peace Officers’ Association, bristles when confronted with the argument that pot should be made legal because it’s no worse than booze. “What good comes of it?” he asks. “Right now, we have enormous social and public-safety problems caused by alcohol abuse . . . [and] by pharmaceuticals. What is the good of adding another mind-altering substance? Look at all the highway fatalities. Why do we want to create another lawful substance that will add exponentially to that?”

That line of thinking suggests that society today would be more sober and safe if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned—an argument U.S. history, particularly the era of Prohibition, does not bear out. “I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight,” Lovell says. “I think people concerned about the social consequences of drug abuse will take on this fight. I think there will be a broad range of opposition.”

On the streets, the crackdown is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug. El Paso, Texas, is another place where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year’s span just across the border in Juarez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. “Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily,” says O’Rourke. “Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue.”

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