By Peter Hecht
Published: Sunday, Sep. 26, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 26, 2010 – 10:52 am

California voters are leaning toward making the Golden State the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

In a new Field Poll of likely voters for the Nov. 2 election, the Proposition 19 marijuana initiative leads by a 49 percent to 42 percent margin.

The measure holds heavy majorities among voters who are younger than 40 and those who live in the populous San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The measure, largely favored by Democrats, trails decidedly among Republicans and is losing by a nearly 2-1 margin in the Central Valley.

The Sept. 14-21 Field Poll of 599 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

However, the new poll shows an increase in support for Proposition 19 since a Field Poll in July had the measure losing, 48 percent to 44 percent.

Matthew Hostler, 30, a Sacramento project manager for an online video games company, is solidly in the Yes on 19 camp.

Hostler thinks it was mistake for the United States to make marijuana illegal in the first place. Now, he says, “What better way than to have California make the change.”

But other voters are less sure about the initiative, which would expand legal marijuana use in California beyond the medical use approved under Proposition 215 in 1996.

Leslie Claridge-Town, 33, of Sacramento has concerns about vagueness in the initiative language. She also has doubts about its potential to produce significant revenue from taxes on marijuana sales.

“I’m actually a bit torn,” said Claridge-Town, a stay-at-home mother who is studying for a degree in marriage and family therapy. “I think it should be legalized. But I’m starting to question that this is the right way to go about it.”

According to the Field Poll, voters also support a measure to allow the state Legislature to pass budgets on a simple majority vote.

The budgeting measure, Proposition 25, was leading by a 46 percent to 30 percent margin. But its lead has dropped measurably from a 65 percent to 20 percent margin in July.

Another measure, Proposition 23, which would suspend the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law until California’s unemployment rate drops below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, is losing by a 45 percent to 34 percent margin.

The closely watched Proposition 19 would permit all Californians 21 and older to legally possess an ounce or less of marijuana and grow their own pot in a 25-square-foot growing space per residence or parcel.

The initiative also would allow local governments to approve higher possession limits and to tax and regulate retail pot sales, cultivation and distribution.

The measure ultimately may highlight just how much California’s attitude toward marijuana has evolved.

A Field Poll in July found that 47 percent of registered voters had tried marijuana at least once and that 50 percent favor some form of legalization.

Nearly four-fifths of California voters approve of medical marijuana use being legal – even though 57 percent said in the July poll that the boom in medical pot shops made it easier to obtain marijuana without a serious medical condition.

“It’s generational,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll. He said people don’t think the existing law enforcement approach to marijuana is helping that much. “And almost half of voters have smoked marijuana,” he said. “So it’s not something mysterious or clearly counterculture.”

But DiCamillo said marijuana in the Golden State stokes the “classic blue California vs. red California political divide.”

He said voter turnout by party and region likely will determine the outcome.

But voters such as Jonathan Hensley, a 38-year-old Sacramento accountant and U.S. Coast Guard veteran, break from party majorities on marijuana.

Though most fellow Democrats back Proposition 19, Hensley said, “I’m not in favor of legalizing substances that are mind-altering.”

He said he is concerned that more people may drive under the influence of marijuana if Proposition 19 passes. And he said California already is struggling to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I don’t see this as a revenue source at this time,” he said. “I see it as a cost to society.”

Republican Rosalie Martin, a retired nurse in Clovis, is “on the fence” over how she’ll vote.

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