Marijuana activists are taking another shot at a ballot measure legalizing the drug for adults under state law – but they hope lawmakers beat them to it.
The organization Sensible Washington filed an initiative Wednesday that would remove all state criminal and civil penalties for the possession use and sale of marijuana in any quantity. But one of the effort’s organizers, Philip Dawdy, said the group would likely be happy to drop it if the Legislature passes a bill introduced this week that would make pot available in state liquor stores.
“The Legislature can save us all a bunch of time and silly television commercials in the fall by passing the bill,” Dawdy said.
The group needs 241,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
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Sensible Washington tried to get a similar initiative on the ballot last year, but fell about 50,000 signatures short. That proposal was criticized for not including a state regulatory system overseeing the marijuana industry; advocates insisted that the state’s single-subject rule for initiatives barred them from removing legal penalties and regulating the drug in the same measure.
This time, the initiative includes language directing the Legislature to develop such regulations, including possibly taxing marijuana sales.
“It clears up any issue about whether we believe in regulations and would support them,” said Sensible Washington attorney Douglas Hiatt.
He also said the group has received support from farmers around the state who are interested in growing hemp, cannabis plants cultivated for their fibers to make clothes, rope and myriad other items.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, filed a bill that would allow the sale of marijuana to people 21 and over through state liquor stores. The Liquor Control Board would issue licenses to commercial growers, and revenue from sales taxes and license fees – possibly hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to supporters – could help pay for health care and substance-abuse treatment.
The bill also says the state would save millions of dollars a year in law enforcement costs. The Liquor Control Board would set limits on how much cannabis farmers could grow and how much adults could possess; criminal penalties would remain in place for amounts in excess of those limits and for interstate transportation. The board would be prohibited from advertising marijuana, and it would also legalize the cultivation of cannabis for hemp. A similar effort by Dickerson failed in committee last year.
Though some law enforcement officials in Washington, including Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, support the legalization and taxation of marijuana, Attorney General Rob McKenna’s spokeswoman said he would oppose Dickerson’s bill if it gets a hearing, and Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Executive Director Don Pierce said his group would probably do the same.
Pierce said he hadn’t had time to read the measure or survey his members about it, but he cited a speech former Seattle police chief and current White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske gave to California law enforcement officials last year. Kerlikowske referenced studies linking chronic marijuana use with mental illness and other health problems, and argued that regulating and taxing cannabis would not be the cure-all proponents make it out to be because the black market would adapt to offer tax-free marijuana.
Proponents argue that marijuana is less harmful and addictive than alcohol, and that prohibition has cost taxpayers – and defendants – exorbitantly while doing nothing to reduce the drug’s use.