California Voters to Decide Whether to Legalize Recreational Pot

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SACRAMENTO -- When California voters head to the polls in November, they will decide whether the state will make history again - this time by legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults.

The state was the first to legalize medicinal marijuana use,with voters passing it in 1996. Since then, 14 states have followedCalifornia's lead, even though marijuana remains illegal underfederal law.

"This is a watershed moment in the decades-long struggle to endfailed marijuana prohibition in this country," said StephenGutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Wereally can't overstate the significance of Californians being thefirst to have the opportunity to end this public policy disaster."

California is not alone in the push to expand legal use ofmarijuana. Legislators in Rhode Island, another state hit hard bythe economic downturn, are considering a plan to decriminalizepossession of an ounce or less by anyone 18 or older.

A proposal to legalize the sale and use of marijuana inWashington was recently defeated in that state's legislature,though lawmakers there did expand the pool of medical professionalsthat could prescribe the drug for medicinal use.

And a group in Nevada is pushing an initiative that marks thestate's fourth attempt in a decade to legalize the drug.

The California secretary of state's office certified theinitiative for the general election ballot Wednesday after it wasdetermined that supporters had gathered enough valid signatures.

The initiative would allow those 21 years and older to possessup to one ounce of marijuana, enough to roll dozens of marijuanacigarettes. Residents also could grow their own crop of the plantin gardens measuring up to 25 square feet.

The proposal would ban users from ingesting marijuana in publicor smoking it while minors are present. It also would make itillegal to possess the drug on school grounds or drive while underits influence.

Local governments would decide whether to permit and taxmarijuana sales.

Proponents of the measure say legalizing marijuana could savethe state $200 million a year by reducing public safety costs. Atthe same time, it could generate tax revenue for local governments.

A Field Poll taken in April found a slim majority of Californiavoters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana to help bridge thestate budget deficit.

Those who grow and sell it illegally fear legalization woulddrive down the price and force them to compete against corporatemarijuana cultivators.

Other opponents view marijuana as a "gateway drug" that, whenused by young people, could lead them to try other, harder drugs.They worry that legalization would persuade more people to try it,worsening the nation's drug culture.

"We are quite concerned that by legalizing marijuana, it willdefinitely lower the perception of risk, and we will see youth usego through the roof," said Aimee Hendle, a spokeswoman forCalifornians for Drug Free Youth.

The initiative is the second proposal to qualify for theNovember ballot. The other is an $11.1 billion water bond measurechampioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature.

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