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Schwarzenegger’s misguided opposition to legalizing marijuana

Proposition 19, the November state ballot measure that would legalize marijuana, will not immediately establish a regulated system of sales, so it is correct to say the law would not immediately generate billions in new tax revenue. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is disingenuous to suggest (as he did in his Sept. 24 Times Op-Ed article) that it’s wrong to support Proposition 19 on the grounds that it will generate additional revenue for the state; it will, but Schwarzenegger says not enough. Proposition 19 is in fact good policy and an important part of what must be a multifaceted solution to the budget crisis.

Schwarzenegger is also way off base to suggest that passing Proposition 19 would make California a “laughingstock.” The governor himself has said he supports a public debate on marijuana legalization. Now that the public debate is under way, he’s calling the growing number of Californians who support it silly?

Unfortunately, it’s Sacramento’s inability to manage the state — even to pass a budget this year — that has made California a joke, not voters’ willingness to challenge the status quo. Proposition 19, with widespread support from labor unions, civil rights advocates, law enforcement and community groups, demonstrates that Californians are not afraid to say out loud what we all know to be true: that marijuana prohibition has been an utter failure.

Proposition 19 would boost jobs and tax revenue. Just as important, from day one, Proposition 19 would significantly reduce the waste (in terms of dollars spent and families affected) associated with more than 60,000 low-level marijuana possession arrests each year, allowing scarce law enforcement resources to be directed toward more important matters of public safety. That is simply good public policy.

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Schwarzenegger was right about one thing: “The notion that we have to choose between legalizing drugs and education funding or care for the elderly is false. The answer is to prioritize the money we already have.”

Unfortunately, Sacramento has failed repeatedly to make the right choices when it comes to drug policy. In the last three years, funding for community-based alcohol and drug treatment programs has been gutted. Funding for Proposition 36, California’s 10-year-old landmark treatment-instead-of-incarceration program, has been cut by 90%, and the governor has proposed eliminating funding for that program entirely this year. Within the prison system, funding for alcohol and drug treatment (and other rehabilitation services) was cut by more than 40% just last year. The governor has even proposed eliminating access to drug treatment through Medi-Cal.

At the same time, thousands of Californians continue to be sent to prison for petty drug violations, costing nearly $50,000 per inmate per year. About 24,000 people are currently incarcerated in state prison for drug possession. That figure doesn’t include the number of people on parole who are returned to prison for a few months for simple drug possession, or the thousands of people in jail, on probation or on parole for drug offenses. All of this continues, even as funding for treatment in communities and behind bars is gutted.

Sacramento must not go one more year with these “priorities.”

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One piece of good news is that the governor and Senate Democrats have each proposed to reduce prison spending this year. Both plans would safely reduce the number of people going to state prison for certain petty drug or property violations and expand counties’ capacity to prevent and respond to crime locally — without sentencing changes or the early release of inmates, which are politically much more difficult. This would represent an important step in the right direction.

By responding to more petty offenses at the county level, California would reduce state prison overcrowding while maintaining public safety. As the burden on the prison system eases, California stands to save hundreds of millions in inmate healthcare costs, will benefit from a smaller parole population and could concentrate its law enforcement resources on preventing and investigating more serious crimes.

The governor should let the voters make up their own minds on Proposition 19. For now, he should focus on working with the Legislature to produce a budget that reduces corrections waste and reflects voters’ real priorities.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy state director for Southern California.


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