Commentary: When it comes to vices, California is in the weeds

All too often, California is stereotyped as an epicenter of sin and vice. No doubt, we have our hot spots, sometimes in unexpected places. Scrolling through the Web, I noticed that there is a Southern California Hedonism Meetup Group that gathers regularly in Newport Beach.

Who woulda thought?

Yet as anyone who has spent time in California knows, this is a diverse and often devout state, with a wide range of views of what kind of personal activities should be tolerated, legalized or prohibited. These differences don't break down along partisan lines. Libertarians and Christian conservatives may end up voting for the same candidate for president in 2012, yet they tend to have completely different stances on legalizing drugs and online poker.

As a state, we act like an armadillo on the highway of vice. We weave all over the road. Sure, we've been known to take strong stands when our health is at risk. We led the nation on restricting smoking, and our public education campaigns on diet and exercise may be having some impact on controlling obesity.

Yet when it comes to vices that pose little direct medical harm but may be culturally offensive, we are a house divided. Consider the case studies of marijuana and gambling.

Some 56 percent of voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, but then we rejected a broader legalization initiative last year. The status quo remains hugely divisive, with medical pot advocates battling federal crackdowns and opponents claiming that loosely regulated dispensaries are outlets for feeding marijuana to kids and teenagers.

Our ambivalence about gambling also hasn't served the state well. In 1984, voters approved the California Lottery and have since endorsed ballot measures expanding Indian casinos. Internet poker may well be the next expansion. Who knows what will come after that?

As it turns out, gambling and marijuana are two of the most vexing issues debated by The Bee's editorial board, and like California, we are a house divided.

On gambling, some on our board say the "horse is out of the barn" with Indian casinos, yet, because of court rulings, the state is limited in what revenues and concessions it can seek from the tribes. "Why not just legalize gambling and tax it," the argument goes. "At least we'd get something for it."

Interestingly, some on our board who are open to legalized gambling are less supportive of legalized marijuana. While some might say the "horse is out of the barn" with weed, they fear that legalization could lead to all kinds of unwanted cultural impacts. "Put aside the fact that such a state law would trigger an even greater confrontation with federal authorities," they argue. "Do we want to become another Amsterdam?"

Currently, The Bee's positions on marijuana and gambling are somewhere in the center. As we stated in a recent editorial, we think the federal government should take marijuana off the "Schedule 1" category of drugs, so that research can be expanded on its possible medical benefits. We also think the state Legislature should strengthen regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries, to align the system with what voters intended.

On gambling, we recognize what the courts have ruled on Indian casinos, but remain seriously concerned about the societal impacts, such as gambling addiction. We don't support further expansion, such as online poker. As we said in 2009, "The notion that the state can solve its budget problems by luring more suckers into a giant virtual casino is both false and deeply troubling."

Personally, I am comfortable with both of these positions. If California is going to fix its budget problems and thrive, it can't stake its future on gambling schemes that don't really create revenue, but just divert it from participating pockets. Marijuana may not be as harmful as its critics claim, but it certainly isn't the kind of recreational commodity that helps us build a well-educated, clear-headed workforce.

On the other hand, I agree there is no way to put these horses back in the barn. Casinos have become a part of the California landscape and there's no shortage of gamblers willing to roll the dice on them. And I certainly recognize that the "drug war" against marijuana has done little but push it underground, leading to the growth of Mexican cartels and dangerous pot farms in the Sierra.

So on both of these vices, I am a bit torn.

I guess that makes me a Californian.