VENICE BEACH, CALIFORNIA // Some people in California believe they have a plan to rescue the state from its budget woes: legalise marijuana. California is already one of 13 US states where marijuana is legally available for medicinal use if a doctor prescribes it. But this year, Tom Ammiano, a Democratic state assemblyman, introduced a bill that would permit anyone over 21 to grow, buy, sell or possess cannabis for recreational use as well.
Marijuana is widely believed to be California's biggest cash crop, with sales estimated at more than US$14 billion (Dh51bn) a year. Milk and cream, the state's second largest farm commodity, brings in about half that, according to the US department of agriculture, while vegetables earn just $5.7bn a year. Proponents of legalised marijuana say a 10-per-cent agricultural tax alone would earn the state almost $1.5bn to offset cuts in spending or tax hikes. There could be further revenue potential in retail sales and through income tax.
Mr Ammiano argues that legalised marijuana would also save the state billions annually in law enforcement costs. "With any revenue ideas, people say you have to think outside the box, you have to be creative," he told Time magazine. A survey in May by California's Field Poll found 56 per cent of state residents supported the idea. Nationwide, just under half of American citizens think marijuana should be legal.
But not everyone is keen on the plan. Law enforcement officials have expressed concern about a legal loophole that allowed hundreds of medicinal marijuana dispensaries to open in the past year - a stunning 800 in the city of Los Angeles alone - with little oversight or regulation. And they cite neighbourhoods like Venice Beach - long a hippie haven - where stoned-out youths sit along the boardwalk holding cardboard signs that read: "I will work for weed."
Sceptics also say that Mr Ammiano's bill contains no plans for regulating a legal marijuana crop. He has said state lawmakers would have to introduce regulatory measures once his bill gets passed. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's governor, has changed his stance on the issue. In May, after the Field Poll was released, he announced it was time for California to study whether legalisation proposals had merit, and proposed a comparative analysis of such countries as Canada and Holland, which have decriminalised possession of small amounts of marijuana.
In a press conference in July, he reversed course, however. "I'm a strong believer, when it comes to marijuana, that the current laws ought to stay in place." @Email:email@example.com