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Schwarzenegger stirs debate on legalizing marijuana

Bill Clinton tried it in college – but didn’t inhale.

Barack Obama inhaled.

“Frequently,” he once quipped. “That was the point.”

Bob Dylan sang about it: “Everybody must get stoned.”

end cannabis prohibition marijuanaWeed, pot, grass, doobie, Mary Jane – whatever you call it, there is no mistaking the pungent smell of burning joints or their impact on California culture for decades.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened a new front for discussion this week, saying that while it’s not time to legalize pot, he’s willing to talk about it as a revenue-raising measure.

The off-the-cuff remark by the well-known governor of the nation’s largest state has sparked fresh debate about whether societal attitudes are shifting as 1960s hippies move beyond middle age.

“It’s time to acknowledge that marijuana prohibition has been a catastrophic failure and we need a new approach,” said Aaron Smith of the Marijuana Policy Project’s California branch.

Others disagree.

“Why on Earth would any sane person want to add yet another mind-altering, health-compromising substance to the array of substances that compromise one’s five senses?” said John Lovell, lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association and various other law enforcement groups.

Schwarzenegger, who was filmed smoking a joint in the 1977 film, “Pumping Iron,” sparked headlines by responding to a reporter’s question about a Field Poll. The survey found that 56 percent of voters support taxing pot used for pleasure or partying.

“I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues – I’m always for an open debate on it. … But just because of raising revenues, we have to be very careful not to make mistakes at the same time,” Schwarzenegger said.

No state allows open sale of recreational marijuana.

California would be the first to legalize recreational pot use under legislation introduced months ago by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has shelved it until next year.

The state Board of Equalization has estimated that legalizing marijuana would reduce its street price by 50 percent, increase consumption, and generate about $1.3 billon annually in taxes.

Merrill Cowee, a 48-year-old Marysville man who uses medicinal marijuana for lower-back pain, gives a thumbs-up to legalization.

“Why not?” he said. “I’ve seen the damage that alcohol does to families – not only a person, but families. To me, I’ve never seen pot do that.”

But Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he has significant concerns about open sales.

“That may be a bridge too far – even for California,” Coupal said.

California could not legalize marijuana unless the federal government alters its current prohibition, which appears unlikely.

Obama has said he supports decriminalizing pot use, fining minor offenders rather than jailing them. But the president has not proposed dropping marijuana from penal codes altogether.

Marijuana advocates nonetheless are convinced that times are changing, pointing to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement two months ago that the federal government will stop prosecuting medical cannabis dispensaries.

“The reason that marijuana prohibition has been kind of the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is because of the fear there would be a political backlash,” Smith said.

“Now, especially with the economic crisis in California, there are much more unpopular proposals being tossed around than making marijuana legal,” he said.

Forty-two percent of California’s high school juniors, 25 percent of high school freshmen and 9 percent of seventh-graders said in a state-sponsored survey two years ago that they had tried marijuana.

Mark DiCamillo, Field Poll director, said a segment of voters has favored legalizing adult pot-smoking for years but “the need for revenue is now kind of pushing it over to a majority.”

Supporters tout legalization of marijuana as simply accepting the pot smoking that exists now, undercutting black-market demand, saving money by easing the crunch on prisons, and generating tax revenues for drug education.

By Jim Sanders

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