Some Say Calif. Can Toke Away Woes

California's budget crisis doesn't call for a bailout -- it calls for a blunt, according to one advocacy group pushing the state to legalize marijuana.

The Marijuana Policy Project hit the streets and the airwaves earlier this month, saying California is missing out on millions of dollars in taxes.

"We are marijuana consumers," says retired state worker Nadene Herndon in a 30-second commercial aired across California. "Instead of being treated like criminals for using a substance safer than alcohol, we want to pay our fair share."

VIDEO:Californians Wrestle With Legalizing Marijuana
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Advocates of marijuana rights see the state's $26.3 billion budget gap as their chance to be heard. If the state legalizes marijuana, they say, it won't have to trim budgets in public sectors like education and law enforcement.

"Every problem is an opportunity," said Bruce Mirken, the spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "And clearly [the economic crisis] has helped provoke the discussion."

That discussion is reaching the public. A Field Poll in April found 56 percent of California voters supported legalizing marijuana.

"Where public opinion goes, eventually politicians are going to follow," Mirken said.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill in February to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol and tax it at $50 per ounce.

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said legalizing marijuana should be considered, but now says the move should not be based simply on money.

Opposition to legal marijuana comes from those concerned about its recreational use, and it's even those who sell it speaking out. Marijuana has been labeled a "gateway drug" and, therefore, concerns arise about drug abuse, which could lead to addictions and more serious narcotics.

"Some people, they abuse it," said Ryan Gaspar, manager of the Holland House dispensary. "And they are going to ruin it for people who really need it."

Advocates of legalization say marijuana must be regulated and sold by licensed merchants like beer, wine or liquor. Even so, they still acknowledge certain inherent dangers.

"Nothing is absolutely risk free," Mirken said. "But when you look at the so-called recreational drugs, marijuana is actually comparatively benign."

Pot Genie Already Out of the Bottle?

The fact is that Californians are getting a hold of the drug. Last year, more than $11 billion in marijuana was seized in California according to the attorney general's office.

Today, there are more medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles than Starbucks coffee shops, after the state legalized the drug for medical purposes in 1996.

Advocates say the state is missing out on the action.

"What we have in prohibition is the worst of all possible worlds," said Mirken. "A drug that is as common as dirt, and totally unregulated and totally untaxed and it makes no sense."

Legal marijuana could not just increase revenue through taxes, it could decrease millions spent on jailing drug abusers, according to supporters. As much as the drug may seem decriminalized, 74,000 Californians were arrested for marijuana in 2007.

"The amount of money that would be saved in terms of incarceration and not enforcing of minor marijuana crimes, I imagine, would be another few million if not more," Ammiano said.

ABC News' Brian Rooney contributed to this report.

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