LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Tuesday he welcomes a public debate on proposals to legalize and tax marijuana, which some suggest could provide a lucrative new revenue source for the cash-strapped state.
The Republican governor, whose term in office expires at the end of next year, was asked about the idea of treating pot like alcohol at an appearance in northern California to promote wildfire preparedness.
"No, I don't think it's time for that, but I think it's time for a debate," he said. "And I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs, what affect it had on those countries, and are they happy with that decision."
The former Hollywood actor, who has admitted smoking marijuana in the past, cited his native Austria as a country where "they want to roll back some of the decisions that were made in European countries."
He said a decision to legalize marijuana, which has been outlawed in the United States since 1937, should not be made on the basis of raising revenues alone.
Schwarzenegger's comments come days after a statewide Field Poll found that 56 percent of California voters support the idea of legalizing cannabis for recreational use and taxing its proceeds.
A bill introduced in the state Legislature by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, would do just that -- permitting taxed sales of marijuana to adults while barring sales to or possession by anyone under age 21. A similar regulatory structure already exists for alcoholic beverages.
Ammiano said his proposal would generate up to $1.3 billion in revenue for the state, which faces another multibillion-dollar budget shortfall just weeks after a landmark deal closing a $42 billion deficit.
He and others who support legalizing pot say such a move also would improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes and would end environmental damage to public lands used for illicit cannabis cultivation.
But in 2004, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have eased rules on how much medical marijuana patients can possess in California.
Voters in California, the nation's most populous state, became the first to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, putting the state at odds with federal law.
Under the Bush administration federal agents stepped up raids against medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states that have passed similar laws.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in March that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama has no plans to prosecute such dispensaries in those states in the future. However, Obama, who also has acknowledged smoking pot in his younger days, recently dismissed the idea of legalizing marijuana on a national level.
By Steve Gorman – Tue May 5, 9:37 pm ET
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)