Bill Steigerwald

Arnold Schwarzenegger proved last week (May 5) he's not a girly-man when it comes to the debate over whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed in California.

Gov. Arnold called for a large-scale study of the consequences of legalizing pot for recreational use in California and suggested that the study might benefit from looking at the effects of drug legalization moves already made by European countries.

It's true that Schwarzenegger is a lame duck and that his politically daring call was driven largely by his bankrupt state's search for new sources of tax revenue.

But Arnold still earned high praise from drug-law reformer Ethan Nadelmann for doing what most politicians are too chicken to ever do - go on record as being in favor of honestly discussing the pros and cons of ending drug prohibition.

Nadelmann, who believes drug prohibition has failed miserably wherever it's been tried, is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (drugpolicy.org), which promotes alternatives to the federal government's failed war on drugs. I talked to him by phone May 8.

Q: Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger 's call for a debate about legalizing and taxing marijuana in California such a big deal?

A: Well, it's crucially important to have elected officials speaking out on any controversial subject in order to give it legitimacy. The fact of the matter is Arnold Schwarzenegger is a nationally recognized figure. He has a reasonable level of respect nationally. So when he says let's have a debate, let's see what the Europeans are doing, well, that's something that the media pays attention to.

Q: This talk about legalizing marijuana and taxing it - is it merely a result of the dire budget problems states are having?

A: That is the single most important thing driving it now. Why was alcohol prohibition repealed so quickly in the 1930s? People were pointing to the crime and the violence, the corruption, the violation of civil liberties, the disrespect for the law, the people dying from bad liquor - all those reasons were motivating people to call for repeal. But, ultimately, the first, second and third reasons were the Depression, the Depression, the Depression.

Similarly today, people are looking at the violence in Mexico, where marijuana is a major source of revenue for the drug gangs. There are a lot of things going on, but clearly it is the recession, the recession, the fear of depression that are the number 1, 2 and 3 reasons for somebody like Schwarzenegger .


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..