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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.

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Massachusetts state legislature is also set to consider a bill to tax and regulate the sale and trade of marijuana. Last year, voters there approved an initiative to reduce the punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a $100 civil citation.

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On Tuesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was responding to a question about the potential statewide boon from taxing marijuana when he said: "It's time for debate.... I'm always for an open debate on it."

Still, he says he does not currently support the idea.

Neither does Mr. Obama. In late March, at a virtual town hall meeting in which viewers voted online for questions that Obama would take, the most popular question was: "With over 1 out of 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy?"

Obama answered, to much applause: "I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

In response to the president's reply, Jack Cole, executive director of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a drug-policy reform group comprised of current and former law enforcement officers, said: "It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought new tax revenue from legal sales."

But many other police groups are steadfastly against any form of legalization. The California Police Chiefs Association said that marijuana dispensaries in the state are "a clear violation of federal and state law; they invite more crime; and they compromise the health and welfare of law-abiding citizens."

Californians approved the medical use of marijuana in 1996, the first state to do so. Today, marijuana is available over the counter throughout the state for anyone with a doctor's permission. In February, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries, which marijuana advocates saw as a sign of growing federal acceptance of state-specific pot laws. Under the Bush administration, the DEA shuttered at least 40 marijuana dispensers.

On its website, the DEA maintains: "Smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science – it is not medicine and it is not safe. DEA targets criminals engaged in cultivation and trafficking, not the sick and dying."

Armentano questions whether the spread of medical marijuana laws is really connected with support for legalization.

He traces the changing stance to three developments: the economic downturn, which is forcing people to consider new sources of revenue; the violent Mexican drug war, which he says many Americans see as the result of prohibition of the drug trade and not directly linked to personal usage; and lastly, more experience with the drug.

According to the DEA, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country. "It's hard to say that using marijuana will ruin your life when the last three American presidents are admitted marijuana users," Armentano says.