03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

California Assembly Panel Votes To Legalize Marijuana

Since marijuana was criminalized more than 70 years ago, no panel of federal or state lawmakers has ever voted to reverse the ban and legalize it. That streak ended on Tuesday, when a California Assembly committee voted to approve AB 390, sponsored by Assembly Democrat Tom Ammiano, which would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in the state of California.

The bill passed the Public Safety Committee by a 4-3 vote and now moves to the Health Committee before coming to the Assembly floor for a full vote.

"This historic vote marks the formal beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States," said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Making marijuana legal has now entered the public dialogue in a credible way. Decades of wasteful, punitive, racist marijuana policy have taken quite a toll in this country. The Public Safety Committee has demonstrated that serious people take ending marijuana prohibition seriously."

Meanwhile, a group of voters announced they have obtained enough signatures to put a marijuana legalization proposition on the California ballot in 2010.

Judge Jim Gray, who retired last year from the California Superior Court in Orange County, hailed the committee's passage of bill.

"The mere fact that there was a vote in the Assembly to regulate and control the sale and distribution of marijuana would have been unthinkable even one year ago. And if the bill isn't fully enacted into law this year, it will be soon," said Gray, who works with the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Or, the bill will be irrelevant because the voters will have passed the measure to regulate and tax marijuana that will be on the ballot this November."

Advocates of Ammiano's legislation argue that, with the state facing an existential fiscal crisis, instead of spending money to enforce marijuana laws the crop should be used as a source for revenue and job creation.

Marijuana-policy reform legislation is on the move elsewhere. Voters in Washington state announced on Monday that they would begin a petition drive to put a legalization question on the ballot as well come November. A group of activists is planning a similar campaign in Nevada.

Also on Monday, the New Jersey legislature approved medical marijuana legislation that would make the drug available from state-licensed dispensaries to seriously ill patients.

UPDATE: The Health Committee must hear the bill by the end of the week or it dies. The committee members can be found here.