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.
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 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.
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.
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.