Legalization of marijuana worth debate

Support for a more common-sense approach to marijuana has been quietly building for years now.

And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comment last week that “I think it’s time for a debate” on the subject of legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana seems to have elevated the topic to a much more serious level.

CNN did a thoughtful and balanced piece on the subject, and the New York Times ran a news article. In addition to a Field Poll survey showing that 56 percent of Californians favor legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana similarly to alcohol, a nationwide Zogby poll commissioned by the conservative-leaning O’Leary Report found 52 percent of Americans nationwide favor something similar. That’s up from 46 percent in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Stephen Gutwillig, California’s director of the reformist Drug Policy Alliance, said the contrast in his state between now and January — when a San Francisco assemblyman introduced a marijuana legalization bill — has been remarkable.

“In January, while some of the coverage was serious, much of it had a joking tone,” Gutwillig said. “This time almost all of the coverage is serious, suggesting that legalization has come close to being a mainstream issue.”

Obviously many Americans are ready for more than a debate, although that would be welcome. Given that the federal government estimates 15 million Americans smoked marijuana in any given month, prohibition is obviously not working, and it channels money to ruthless criminals rather than to honest businesspeople and the government.

A serious discussion of alternatives to prohibition is overdue.

Portugal decriminalized most previously illicit drugs in 2001, meaning there can be civil penalties — a fine and/or mandatory treatment — for possession or use but no criminal penalties. One result is that usage of almost every previously illicit drug, among all age groups, is lower in Portugal than in countries with harsher drug laws.

Schwarzenegger and leaders in New Mexico and Texas and other states would be well-advised to follow up ideas with action.

Perhaps a panel of experts could be assembled to study the experiences of other countries that have liberalized drug laws or downgraded enforcement. Perhaps a commission could hold hearings throughout the country, taking testimony from people on all sides of the issue. Perhaps lawmakers could authorize studies that would analyze the costs and benefits of legalization.

It is clear legalizing marijuana would provide a certain amount of relief in every state’s budget; California proponents believe the tax revenues would bring in $1.3 billion in their state.

That alone makes such a reform worth considering.

Thanks for mentioning the idea, Gov. Schwarzenegger. Now it’s time for some serious follow-through.