Sacramento -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday that the time is right to debate legalizing marijuana for recreational use in California.
The governor's comments were made as support grows nationwide for relaxing pot laws and only days after a poll found that for the first time a majority of California voters back legal marijuana. Also, a San Francisco legislator has proposed regulating and taxing marijuana to bring the state as much as $1.3 billion a year in extra revenue.
Schwarzenegger was cautious when answering a reporter's question Tuesday about whether the state should regulate and tax the substance, saying it is not time to go that far.
But, he said: "I think it's time for debate. I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues - I'm always for an open debate on it."
The governor said California should look to the experiences of other nations around the world in relaxing laws on marijuana.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill to regulate marijuana like alcohol, with people over 21 years old allowed to grow, buy, sell and possess cannabis - all of which are barred by federal law.
California voters in 1996 legalized marijuana for medical use with permission from a physician.
Ammiano said he was pleased the governor is "open-minded" on the issue and added that he was sure the two could "hash it out."
Under Ammiano's proposal, the state would impose a $50-an-ounce levy on sales of marijuana, which would boost state revenues by about $1.3 billion a year, according to an analysis by the State Board of Equalization. Betty Yee of San Francisco, who chairs the Board of Equalization, supports the measure.
"This has never just been about money," said Ammiano, who has long supported reforming marijuana laws. "It's also about the failure of the war on drugs and implementing a more enlightened policy. I've always anticipated that there could be a perfect storm of political will and public support, and obviously the federal policies are leaning more toward states' rights."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll last week found that 46 percent of Americans favored legalization of small amounts of pot for personal use, double the number who supported that a decade ago. A Field Poll also released last week found that 56 percent of California voters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana.
In March, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would take a softer stance on medical marijuana dispensaries, with drug enforcement agents targeting only those who violate state and federal law. California is one of 13 states that allow marijuana use with a doctor's recommendation.
Many law enforcement organizations oppose changes in marijuana laws. The California Police Chiefs Association, in a report last month, concluded that marijuana dispensaries constitute "a clear violation of federal and state law; they invite more crime; and they compromise the health and welfare of law-abiding citizens."
But the head of that association said he, too, is open to a debate on legalizing pot.
"We keep walking around the 5,000-pound elephant in the room, which is should marijuana be legal?" said Bernard Melekian, president of the association and chief of police in Pasadena.
The Board of Equalization analysis predicts that legalization would drop the street value of marijuana by 50 percent and increase consumption by 40 percent.
Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates legalization, said the governor's comments about marijuana are part of a "tectonic shift" in attitudes toward the issue.
"I think, frankly, the public is going to drag the politicians into doing what is right," he said.
Chronicle staff writer Matthew Yi contributed to this report.
May 6, 2009 -- Sacramento Bee (CA)
Governor Asks: What If Pot's Legal And Taxed?
By Kevin Yamamura
As California struggles to find cash, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday it's time to study whether to legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use.
The Republican governor did not support legalization and the federal government still bans marijuana use but advocates hailed the fact that Schwarzenegger endorsed studying a once-taboo political subject.
"Well, I think it's not time for (legalization), but I think it's time for a debate," Schwarzenegger said. "I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues, I'm always for an open debate on it. And I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs, what effect did it have on those countries?"
Schwarzenegger was at a fire safety event in Davis when he answered a question about a recent Field Poll showing 56 percent of registered voters support legalizing and taxing marijuana to raise revenue for cash-strapped California. Voters in 1996 authorized marijuana for medical purposes.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has written legislation to allow the legal sale of marijuana to adults 21 years and older for recreational use. His Assembly Bill 390 would charge cannibis wholesalers initial and annual flat fees, while retailers would pay $50 per ounce to the state.
The proposal would ban cannibis near schools and prohibit smoking marijuana in public places.
Marijuana legalization would raise an estimated $1.34 billion annually in tax revenue, according to a February estimate by the Board of Equalization. That amount could be offset by a reduction in cigarette or alcohol sales if consumers use marijuana as a substitute.
Besides raising additional tax revenue, the state could save money on law enforcement costs, Ammiano believes. But he shelved the bill until next year because it remains controversial in the Capitol, according to his spokesman, Quintin Mecke.
"We're certainly in full agreement with the governor," Mecke said. "I think it's a great opportunity. I think he's also being very realistic about understanding sort of the overall context, not only economically but otherwise."
Schwarzenegger previously has shown a casual attitude toward marijuana. He was filmed smoking a joint in the 1977 film, "Pumping Iron." And he told the British version of GQ in 2007, "That is not a drug. It's a leaf." Spokesman Aaron McLear downplayed the governor's comment as a joke at the time.
Even if California were to legalize marijuana, the state would hit a roadblock with the federal government, which prohibits its use. Ammiano hopes for a shift in federal policy, but President Barack Obama said in March he doesn't think legalization is a good strategy.
Any study would find plenty of arguments, judging by responses Tuesday.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, said he's open to a study, but he remains opposed to legalization. He warned that society could bear significant burdens. He downplayed enforcement and incarceration savings because he believes drug courts are already effective in removing low-level offenders from the system.
"Studies have shown there is impairment with marijuana use," DeVore said. "People can get paranoid, can lose some of their initiative to work, and we don't live in some idealized libertarian society where every person is responsible completely to himself. We live in a society where the cost of your poor decisions are borne by your fellow taxpayers."
But Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project said studies show alcohol has worse effects on users than marijuana in terms of addiction and long-term effects. His group believes marijuana should be regulated and taxed just like alcoholic beverages.
"There are reams of scientific data that show marijuana is less harmful than alcohol," Mirken said. "Just look at the brain of an alcoholic. In an autopsy, you wouldn't need a microscope to see the damage. Marijuana doesn't do anything like that."
Schwarzenegger said he would like to see results from Europe as part of a study.
The Austrian parliament last year authorized cultivation of medical marijuana. But Schwarzenegger talked with a police officer in his hometown of Graz and found the liberalization was not fully supported, McLear said.
"It could very well be that everyone is happy with that decision and then we could move to that," Schwarzenegger said. "If not, we shouldn't do it. But just because of raising revenues we have to be careful not to make mistakes at the same time."
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