It's been a busy week for marijuana in Washington state. Activists announced the filing of a legalization initiative Monday, the House held hearings on a pair of marijuana decriminalization and legalization bills Wednesday, and a statewide poll released Tuesday showed majority support for legalization.
At the statehouse, the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee was the scene of the hearings on a pair of bills, HB 1177 and HB 2401. The former would decriminalize marijuana possession; the latter would legalize marijuana possession, cultivation and sales, and regulate it like alcohol.
Proponents argued that marijuana prohibition has been as ineffective as alcohol Prohibition. "We have not deterred the use of marijuana, nor have we seen a noticeable impact on the availability of marijuana," legalization bill sponsor Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle) told the committee. "Over the last decade, we have wasted scores of taxpayer dollars on investigation, court proceedings and incarceration."
Under Dickerson's bill, marijuana would be sold in Washington's 160 state-run liquor stores and would be taxed at 15% of the retail price. Funds raised by taxing marijuana would be mainly earmarked for drug abuse prevention and treatment. Dickerson said her measure could raise up to $300 million a year for the state.
The decriminalization bill, sponsored by Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), would make adult possession of marijuana a civil infraction with a $100 penalty. Under current state law, it is a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory minimum one-day sentence and up to 90 days in jail.
"It's not about fighting for our right to party," said Upthegrove. "My interest is to minimize drug addiction."
Of course, the police were not happy. "If you believe that it is okay for kids in school to use marijuana and be high, then you should pass either one or both of these," said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
"I for one would prefer not to have another substance that's going to allow an impaired individual, in a legal fashion, during the hunting season, for example, using a fire arm" or operating a boat or driving, said John Didion, president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
But a former Republican state senator, Bill Finkbeiner, testified that it was time to consider changing the marijuana laws. "There's a very real cost to having our police, our courts and our jails have to deal with a problem that's a victimless crime," Finkbeiner said. "Public opinion is evolving on this issue."
A poll released this week suggested Finkbeiner was onto something. The KING5-TV/SurveyUSA poll of 500 Washingtonians reported that 56% thought legalization was a good idea and 54% approved the idea of selling marijuana through state-run liquor stores.
The committee also heard from Ric Smith of Sensible Washington, the group that filed the initiative Monday. He told the solons not to worry about legalizing marijuana -- the voters would take care of it in November. "We're going to take it out of your hands," he said. "Just wait for our initiative. It will take care of everything."
The initiative, sponsored by attorneys Douglass Hiatt and Jeffrey Steinborn, as well as Smith, Hempfest head Vivian McPeak and Philip Waine Dawdy, would remove all state criminal penalties for adults who possess, cultivate, and sell marijuana -- no matter the quantity. Supporters must gather 241,000 valid signatures by July 2 to qualify it for the November ballot.
Meanwhile, the House committee will vote on the decrim and legalization bills next week.