Debate over the legalization of marijuana has fueled emotional contention in Santa Barbara, and as the November election nears, the issue is taking center stage statewide.

Proposition 19 would allow adults age 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal consumption, grow plants on up to a 25-square-foot parcel per private property, or transport marijuana for personal use. Local governments may authorize larger amounts for personal use, commercial use, transportation and sale. It would allow local and state governments to tax marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution, according to the Secretary of State’s Web site.

In California, Proposition 215 legalized licensed individuals or businesses to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes since 2006. However, federal agencies have the jurisdiction to prosecute California patients and providers of medical marijuana.

Proposition 19 would prohibit marijuana at school, using it in public, smoking with minors present or driving while impaired. It also allows employers to address marijuana use only when job performance is impaired.

Opponents cite ambiguity around some of the regulations in the proposition. It reads, “Personal consumption shall not include: consumption by the operator of any vehicle, boat or aircraft while it is being operated, or that impairs the operator.”

“It’s a fact of public safety that goes beyond schools. A school bus driver could be forbidden to smoke on school grounds but could show up to school with marijuana in the system,” said Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools, adding that it’s only after an accident that the worker could be punished.

Those in favor of the proposition say it would maintain strict criminal penalties for driving under the influence and increase penalties for providing marijuana to minors.

The Secretary of State’s Web site says the legalization of marijuana could have the capacity to save the cost of incarcerating certain marijuana offenders to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It also could increase government revenues by hundreds of millions annually if taxed, depending on the extent the federal government chooses to enforce marijuana laws and whether governments choose to authorize, regulate and tax marijuana-related activities.

Officials with Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana said California doesn’t have the legal right to tax marijuana, and its legalization would add more layers to bureaucracy that would cost taxpayers more money.

Those supporting the measure contend that tax revenue could generate $1.5 billion annually and that ending the arrests of nonviolent marijuana consumers would save the police hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and refocus their resources on violent crime.

Opponents argue that legalizing marijuana also would make the product more available to youths. Carla Lowe, a member of CALM, pointed to the 1975 legalization of marijuana for adults in Alaska, which increased use among the state’s teenagers to more than twice the national average.

The Santa Barbara School District endorsed a resolution against Proposition 19 because reports indicate that the use of marijuana by high school juniors has spiked and is well above state averages, according to Brian Sarvis, the district’s superintendent.

“According to Daniel Bryant (of Daniel Bryant Youth & Family Treatment Center), 80 percent of kids treated are working on marijuana dependency,” Sarvis said. “Marijuana is already available, and that trickles down to our kids. It’s more about marketing, and once you have that kind of a law, you get commercials to market the product that will make it more attractive to our kids.”

Yet, some argue that the measure would limit the availability of marijuana to youths.

“Drug use is a problem in society. Rather than pushing it away, we need to study it and work together as a community to find health-oriented answers rather than criminalizing it,” said Gretchen Bergman, a member of Moms Unite to End War on Drugs. “Teens will find a way to get (marijuana), but regulating it will make it less easy to get a hold of.”

Dr. Steven Hosea, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s associate director of internal medicine education, said there is an illegitimate stigma against marijuana use because it’s considered a Schedule 1 drug.

“There is no disputing its medicinal value,” he said. “Cannabis has significant effects, certainly on pain.”

While feelings toward cannabis may be mixed in Santa Barbara, recent polls show Californians are in favor of its legalization — by a narrow margin.

According to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, as of Sept. 26, 52 percent of 614 Californians voted in favor of legalization, while 41 percent were against and 7 percent were undecided.

Either way, the conversation of legalization has caught the attention of donors. The committee Public Safety First: No on Prop. 19 has raised $135,000 this year, largely endorsed by the Police Chiefs Association. The group Yes on 19: Tax Cannabis 2010, which is sponsored by S.K. Seymour LLC, a medical cannabis provider in Oakland, has raised $426,688. The Drug Policy Action Committee Yes on 19 has raised $102,469. It is mostly funded by Philip Harvey, DKT international president, which is a nonprofit that promotes family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention through social marketing.

Noozhawk intern Alex Kacik is a graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at akacik@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.