California on Marijuana: Hate the Sin and Tax the Sinner?

Here’s one to keep us occupied during the long hot summer as the countdown drones on of days without a budget:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says it’s time for California to “study” legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. Not that he’s in favor of it, mind you …

A new Field Poll does show that a majority of Californians – 56 percent – are in favor of it. An even heavier majority supports a hefty porn tax, as well as increases in tobacco and alcohol taxes. There seems to be a definite trend toward hating the sin and taxing the sinner.

The idea is oh-so tempting. Raise an easy $1 billion a year by making marijuana legal for those over 21 and taxing it at $50 an ounce.

That’s what San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano is proposing in Assembly Bill 390. A bill, by the way, that’s gone no where. It had been scheduled for a hearing in March, but that hearing was cancelled at Ammiano’s request.

Here’s the problem, though, with that 56 percent majority. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.7 percentage points, which means as many as 60.7 percent might approve or as few as 52.3 percent.

And 52.3 percent is a mighty thin margin to risk such huge political capital on. If you think Proposition 8 stirred the masses, just wait until the state endures another awful autumn of anti-drug vitriol.

That’s assuming the “study” returns a positive recommendation – and it likely would because, reefer madness aside, there’s no logical reason for marijuana to be more tightly regulated than alcohol and there’s a huge fiscal up side.

That’s assuming Schwarzenegger could get it on the ballot. Count on no help from the Legislature – Republicans will flee and Democrats in moderate to conservative districts will hesitate as well.

That’s assuming the state can get help from the federal government, which has fought even medicinal marijuana.

Ammiano has said he’ll ask President Obama for help, but don’t count on that. Obama has specifically said he does not think legalizing pot “is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

Smart man. Why would a president with as much heavy and painful lifting on as many serious issues as Obama is facing have any desire at all to wade into this one? Talk about a waste of energy on something that, at best, is going to enrage nearly half the population. As if this country needs one more thing to be divided over.

Which makes one wonder if Schwarzenegger’s “study” isn’t more smoke screen than trial balloon. What better way to redirect public attention from real problems than to send that red herring floating down the stream.

Finding a wedge issue – anything from abortion to gay marriage will work. Drug laws also are a classic go-to in the play book. Throw it on the ballot or draft a bill. Sit back and watch the furor erupt. Then go about tending to education, health, tax policy without the meddlesome interference of voters distracted by the latest bright, shiny object.

It also could be that Schwarzenegger’s so far down the lame-duck path that’s he’s lost his political radar. Or maybe the rumors are true and he does plan to pull an Arlen Specter and switch sides.

Ammiano aside, though, even most Democrats know better than to tackle this issue. There are simply too many more-important things that need to be addressed.