Update: CA Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger open to debate legalizing pot. The smell of freedom is in the air.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/05/06/MNO617F929.DTL&type=printable
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. E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.