California's budget impasse has passed the one-month mark, social services aren't getting state-funded help they need to stay open, and other legislative priorities are being put off the table until the legislature can come to agreement.
One California resident thinks he has the answer: Legalize the growth and sales of marijuana.
Clifford Schaffer, who runs a marijuana advocacy Web site in his spare time from his day job as a computer programmer, says that California could easily clear up the $700 million budget gap still facing state lawmakers, and as a plus, the measure could even help improve national security. He has started a petition, and the number of those supporting his idea is growing rapidly.
"We would honestly hope that they take our suggestion. Failing that, you know, what are the options?" Schaffer said in a telephone interview from his Agua Dulce, Calif., home. Otherwise, he said, "They're going to send another few billion to the drug lords in Mexico who are challenging the Mexican government."
Citing a study that estimates gross U.S. spending on marijuana at roughly $10 billion a year, he said California could corner the market on taxes gleaned from a legalized marijuana trade, generating $1 billion in revenues. That money would stay within the state instead of going to foreign drug cartels.
The governor's office on Thursday dismissed the notion.
"We're not responding to publicity stunts, which is what I think that is," said Aaron McLear, press secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
McLear said the governor has signaled his satisfaction with the last proposal that made it out of the state Assembly, but blamed a bloc of state Senate Republicans for killing the proposal. The $145 billion measure would have narrowed the budget gap from an expected $1.4 billion down to roughly $700 million, and Schwarzenegger said he would use the line-item veto to reduce the rest of the red ink.
As a result of the budget impasse, the Assembly leaders have said they will not handle any other legislation until the budget is passed. McLear said that is affecting administration priorities, which include health care and political reforms, as well as water storage revisions.
"These are things that the governor had hoped to tackle this year, but are frankly on hold until the budget gets done," McLear said. "One hundred percent of the focus of the administration is getting this budget passed."
Schaffer said he was prompted to start his petition campaign this week by two things: first, a photo last week in The Los Angeles Times showing a despondent Schwarzenegger, and secondly, a bit of local politics before the L.A. City Council.
The L.A. City Council recently set into motion a policy that will make room for the sales of medical marijuana through local "cannabis clubs," or medical marijuana dispensaries. But during the meeting that the council approved the measure, one of the leading cannabis club operators — who was at the meeting being congratulated for his upstanding business — had his own club raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency, Schaffer said.
Schaffer admits that he hopes to get more attention to his proposal, but said he thinks it is a serious solution, too. He cited other studies on his Web site that show — despite marijuana's tendency to reduce individual productivity — overall economic activity would not be affected negatively.
Schaffer also said that fears over the need for increased police presence also are unfounded, saying that violence that surrounds marijuana results from the underground economy created from the prohibition on marijuana, not the affects of marijuana itself.
So far, about 2,000 people have signed the petition, which he hopes will prompt action in the Assembly. For the time being, he's not seeking a ballot initiative, but is looking to other marijuana advocacy groups like California NORML to begin organizing protests in Sacramento to bring more attention to the issue.
Mike Gray, a longtime marijuana advocate and president of the L.A.-based Common Sense for Drug Policy, said this movement has more fervor than others he's seen.
"I've seen a flood of e-mail unlike anything I've ever seen. ... just in the last 48 hours," Gray said. He added that he will be fundraising to drive the movement in hopes of getting friendly ears in Sacramento. He said so far, no lawmakers he's aware of have expressed interest in the idea.
At root, however, Schaffer says his proposal is more than just a ploy to bring marijuana to the masses.
"My first hope is that they would take my offer and fund the desperately needed programs that need to be funded," Schaffer said.