By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hopes that California will become the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana appear to be turning into a pipe dream.
Voters plan to oppose a measure on the November 2 ballot to legalize marijuana use by 53 percent to 43 percent, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday that showed a big change of sentiment from June.
Liberally inclined and financially troubled, California was the first state to flout federal law and legalize marijuana for medical use, and a Reuters/Ipsos poll in June showed voters nearly evenly divided on the measure to legalize sales and recreational use, known as Proposition 19.
Marijuana use has taken off like a weed in California since voters in 1996 approved the drug for medical use. Doctors in markets including Oakland and Los Angeles are in price wars to provide medical referrals, which have fallen below $100, and Oakland in particular is setting up rules for the creation and taxation of marijuana-growing facilities.
The idea of taxing recreational marijuana draws a lot of attention.
"They should tax the hell out of it and send the money directly to the schools," said Deborah Wynn, 56, a jobless student aiming to work in the medical industry.
But California is not as liberal as its reputation: enthusiasm for legalization in Los Angeles and San Francisco is offset by more conservative views in other parts of the state.
And while Democrats support marijuana legalization and outnumber Republicans in the state, Republicans are more consistent in their opposition. Democrats support legalization 54 percent to 45 percent, but Republicans are against it more than two to one, at or 66 percent to 30 percent.
Independents are nearly evenly divided.
Skepticism about legalization runs the gamut from those fearing it will not bring in the hoped-for hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in taxes to those who see marijuana as a real danger.
Michael Smith, a 20-year-old student at Long Beach City College who plans to become a nurse, said marijuana had been a gateway drug for friends who continued to ecstasy and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.
"I had two friends who were faded on marijuana and Xannies and flipped their truck on the 605 South," he said, referring to the nearby San Gabriel River Freeway. Both died.
Proposition 19 would allow recreational use of marijuana by adults and regulation of sales and cultivation by local governments, creating a potential hothouse of regulatory experimentation.
Marijuana use already is practically legal in California.
For those unable to obtain a medical referral, the criminal penalty for possession of less than an ounce (28 grams), was reduced last month from a misdemeanor to an "offense," essentially leaving the offender without a criminal record.
The top penalty remains a $100 fine.
"In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote, as he signed the bill, despite his declared opposition to decriminalizing recreational marijuana use.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Eric Walsh)
(For more on the U.S. midterm elections please click: http://www.reuters.com/politics/elections-2010)