Calif. cops split on legal pot fight

Many law-enforcement leaders, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and the California Police Chiefs Association, oppose 'Prop 19'

By William M. Welch
USA Today

LOS ANGELES — California's fall ballot battle over legalizing pot is drawing law-enforcement officials to both sides of the issue. Beer sellers want to stop legal marijuana, too, but say it's not because they fear competition.

Proposition 19, which if approved by voters in November, would make marijuana legal for recreational use by those 21 and older, though possession would still be a federal violation.

The first state in the USA to make marijuana legal for medical use, California would again set a new course for the nation on drug use if Prop 19 is approved.

The sponsor of the proposition, Tax Cannabis 2010, says it will provide as much as $1.4 billion in tax revenue to the state, citing state estimates. Opponents say it would invite a public-safety nightmare with stoned workers and motorists.

Local law-enforcement leaders, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and the California Police Chiefs Association, oppose the measure. Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has urged opposition, joined by his predecessors under three previous presidents.

"No country in the world has legalized marijuana to the extent envisioned by Proposition 19," they wrote in a Los Angeles Times column. "We can say with near certainty ...that marijuana use would increase if it were legal."

Supporters of Prop 19 also have some law officers on their side. Former Seattle Police chief Norm Stamper argued for passage, saying current laws don't make marijuana less available but have made the trade profitable for Mexican drug cartels.

"This is really a law and order initiative," Oakland City Attorney John Russo said last week in endorsing Prop 19. "Arresting and criminalizing tens of thousands of Californians every year for misdemeanor possession diverts police ... from arresting and convicting violent criminals."

California Beer and Beverage Distributors, a trade group, gave $10,000 to the opposition campaign Public Safety First this month.

Backers of Prop 19 say the alcohol industry is trying to keep people drinking rather than puffing for recreation.

"They see this as competition," says Steve Fox, of the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that advocates legal marijuana. "By keeping one illegal, ... it increases the likelihood people will use alcohol."

"Absolutely not," responds Rhonda Stevenson, political coordinator for the California beer group. She says the proposal fails to establish state control over pot sales along the lines of alcohol laws and instead leaves pot regulation to cities and counties. "We have a (regulatory) structure they could have used, but they chose not to," she said.

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