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A marijuana tax as the next new revenue stream?

Polls suggest increased support for decriminalizing and taxing the drug, but policy may not change soon.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2009



San Francisco

Are Americans really ready to consider legalizing marijuana? This week, California's governor said it was time to debate the issue, and a new nationwide poll suggests a majority of voters favor decriminalizing the drug.

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While legalization advocates say they've never seen such widespread public support for reforming marijuana laws, they still don't expect drug policy to change overnight. But, they say, the country appears to be at tipping point in how it views recreational use of marijuana, which is now legal in 13 states for medically-approved use.

"We are actually talking about historic highs when it comes to public support of taxing and regulating marijuana for adult consumption," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). But, he adds, "the most difficult task is how you convert public sentiment into public policy."

In Washington, Mr. Armentano says, politicians are still not ready to rethink US drug policy.

In a poll released Wednesday by Zogby International, 52 percent of voters said they would support legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana use.

The survey asked voters if they would "favor or oppose the government's effort to legalize marijuana?"

That question may be a bit misleading, suggests Reason Online blogger Jacob Sullum. "The phrase 'the government's effort to legalize marijuana' makes it sound as if this is something that's already happening, which makes the idea seem more realistic and credible."

Also, the poll surveyed 3,937 voters whose political identities followed the outcome of the last presidential election – 54 percent were President Obama supporters and 46 percent voted for Sen. John McCain. "This sample may be skewed in a pro-reform direction if, as seems plausible, left-leaning Americans were especially motivated to vote in the last presidential election, while conservatives were dispirited," he wrote.

Nonetheless, "It's in line with building support for marijuana legalization in other surveys," Mr. Sullum acknowledged.

The Zogby findings follow last month's ABC News/Washington Post survey that found 46 percent support for decriminalizing marijuana. And a California Field Poll published April 30 said that 56 percent of state residents were OK with marijuana becoming a taxed and regulated commodity.

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, (D) from San Francisco, has proposed legislation to begin treating marijuana like alcohol – giving anyone over 21 the right to use it but taxing it heavily. Taxing marijuana, supporters of Mr. Ammiano's bill say, could bring the cash-strapped state $1.3 billion annually. Already the state collects about $18 million annually from medical marijuana.

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