California Assembly panel backs legalization of marijuana

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano emerged Tuesday from a victorious committee vote to legalize marijuana proclaiming history was in the making.

It didn't matter that his bill was dead on non-arrival. A separate Assembly health committee won't take up the bill this week, meaning it will miss a legislative deadline for reaching the Assembly floor.

But the political theater Ammiano stirred in winning a 4-3 vote in the Public Safety Committee for pot's legalization raises the curtain on a near-certain November ballot fight and heated skirmishes in the Legislature over the future of marijuana use in California.

"I think the conversation is definitely gaining traction," Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, said after the bill passed the committee he chairs. "There was a time when the 'M' word was never mentioned in Sacramento."

No more.

Not when the owner of an Oakland medical pot dispensary has spent more than $1 million toward qualifying a November initiative to allow all California residents over age 21 to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.

Not when police officers and clergy members crowded into Ammiano's hearing room, imploring lawmakers against swooning to promises that California's fiscal ills could be alleviated with more than $1 billion in new pot taxes.

"I can tell you categorically that legalization of marijuana will only increase the challenges facing us," testified San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer. "To balance the budget on the backs of the harm caused by illegal intoxication is mind-boggling."

But Max Del Real, a lobbyist working to legalize pot for general use, said it is time for California to seize upon "an emerging industry."

"California needs jobs. The cannabis industry can provide that," said Del Real, whose clients include the Green Door medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco and Oaksterdam University, an Oakland school that offers training in marijuana law and cultivation.