Arnold Schwarzenegger has never apologized for smoking pot — and loving it — at the height of his bodybuilding career in the 1970s. Now, as a struggling Republican governor of California reaching a crossroads in his political career, he might yet become the US’ most visible advocate for legalizing marijuana.
The actor-turned-politician gladdened the heart of every joint-roller and dope fiend across the Golden State earlier this week when he said it was time for a full debate on legalization.
Schwarzenegger was careful not to say too much — he stopped shorting of saying he was in favor of legalizing cannabis now — but his words broke a long-standing taboo among both Republicans and Democrats who have previously felt obliged to say marijuana must remain illegal and marijuana users and pushers be subject to criminal prosecution.
The governor spoke in response to a new public opinion poll showing that 56 percent of registered voters in California favor legalizing and taxing marijuana — in part to help the state out of the worst budget crisis in its history. The state faces a shortfall of billions of dollars a year because of the bad economy and public services from schools to hospitals to fire-fighting services are under mounting threat.
Asked if he too favored legalization, Schwarzenegger told reporters: “Well, I think it’s not time for that, but I think it’s time for a debate. I think all of those ideas of creating extra revenues [are worth considering] ... I think we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs. What effect did it have on those countries?”
The redwood forests of northern California are famous for their marijuana cultivation, creating an underground economy that has continued to thrive despite the US’ decades-long war on drugs. The Golden State has been a leading rebel against the federal government’s strict interdiction policies, becoming the first of 14 US states to allow marijuana for medical use as far back as 1996.
Legalization, however, has never been a serious part of the agenda.
The most immediate effect of the governor’s comments is likely to be a boost for a legalization bill recently introduced in the state assembly by San Francisco liberal Democrat Tom Ammiano. Such bills pop up every few years and are almost always ignored or defeated, but this one may just be different now.
“I look forward to working with the governor and my colleagues in the effort to be the first state in the nation to enact commonsense policy on marijuana,” Ammiano said.
His proposed system of legalizing and taxing marijuana would raise an estimated US$1.3 billion a year in tax revenue alone, state legislative analysts said.
The savings in law enforcement and incarceration costs could be many billions more.
Schwarzenegger may feel he has little to lose. He feels out of step within an increasingly rigid, increasingly hardline conservative Republican party and the economic crisis in California has pushed his popularity ratings below 40 percent.