This Washington

The High Point of the 2010 Session So Far: "The Pot Bills"

By Teodora Popescu January 13, 2010


“The best show in Olympia so far,” quipped a legislative staffer standing with the crowd on the side of the packed hearing room. This is the consensus among staffers about yesterday’s public hearing in the House public safety committee on bills to decriminalize marijuana and to legalize marijuana.

The “pot bills” drew a motley crowd from stereotypical hippies carrying a "legalize now" banner to the nicely-dressed businessman hovering in the corner. The two bills, decriminalization backed by Burien-area Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-33), and the other by Seattle Reps Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) and Eastside Seattle suburban Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45), would like to capitalize on what could be an untapped market for revenue as Washington state faces a $2.6 billion dollar budget shortfall.

Among other things, both bills are being spun politically as elixirs for the budget. Proponents hope to eliminate the burden of enforcement, arrest, and prosecution on taxpayers. While Rep. Upthegrove's office couldn't give any hard numbers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimated $10 to $12 million in savings, based on statewide assessment. (We found the number to be closer to $1.2 million.) The full-on legalization bill looks to sell to adults age 21 and over with a 15 percent tax on each gram. Sponsors call this second approach two-fold in helping the state—first by curbing criminal justice costs and second by raising revenue.

The best show in town was not short of quote-worthy moments, including Rep. Upthegrove’s statement that, “This is not an issue we should be cute about, it’s not for your right to party."

Upthegrove emphasized that decriminalization would free up law enforcement to concentrate on serious crimes, making Washington safer.

Legalization leader, Seattle Rep. Dickersen (D-36) took the spotlight next, citing the the estimated $3 million that she said would be generated annually from marijuana legalization (she's basing on liquor sales)—a figure that had the crowd literally clapping, (Committee Chairman Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-31) was quick to stop the group.)

In a surprising turn on the "teen stoner" stereotype used throughout the hearing by supporters and opponents alike, ninth grader Riley Harrison came forward to testify against both bills, contesting Rep. Goodman's earlier statements that legalization and regulation were the right choice for Washington's youth. The jeans and t-shirt clad student, who had been granted the day off from Ridgeline Middle School in order to testify, had this to say, “What message does legalizing marijuana send to the youth of Washington? That you give up? That we are not worth fighting for? That you are willing to gamble with our futures in exchange for tax revenue?”

Performances aside, the hearing did generate a good amount of thoughtful discussion. The legal community was squarely in favor of decriminalization, including the Washington Bar Association and the King County Bar Association. Their argument was simple: It was fiscally responsible to free up the court houses, jails, and justice system in general. Not to mention Derek Hollinger, an individual lawyer who argued that, “we are destroying our youth’s future by slapping them with possession charges that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

On the side opposing decriminalization were police groups such as the Washington State Board of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs and individual police officers from Chelan County, whose joint opinion was that the addition of any mind altering substance to the public would cause a safety risk (i.e. more accidents, and unintended harm.) The major exception was the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organization, headed by spokesman and former U.S. Customs Agent Arnold James Byron, who testified for the need to step away from marijuana prohibition.

As far as legalization, civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union were, not surprisingly, in favor—as were most of the private citizens whose ties to marijuana went from recreational to medical. "It is my right as an adult to make choices about my body, cigarettes aren't good for us and yet we live in a society that regulates and profits from that industry," Seattle local Greg David said.

Perhaps the most intriguing divide among the groups was that of the medical marijuana community, who’s proponents and opponents seemed to have the same justification. Those in favor of legalization claimed it would make their lives easier, giving them more piece of mind, and help eliminate the negativity society had place on their medication of choice.

Alesandra Geddert, a young professional who had been diagnosed with Chrones disease and was using medical marijuana to manage the disease said, “I am mostly here for the selfish reason of not being seen as a criminal.”

At the same time, medical marijuana users opposed to the bill stated nearly the same reasons, they wanted their lives to remain easy, to have full control over their medical marijuana prescriptions—and saw legalization as a threat. If marijuana was legalized, they argued, it could negatively affect the price of their prescriptions.

The elephant in the room—the federal reaction—was largely ignored. The focus of the hearing rested on a single principle—what's your gut—is marijuana good or bad?

On that question, even the medical community was split. The King County Medical Society (KCMS) was in favor (incarceration ends up compounding people's problems, they said) and the Washington Substance Prevention Association (WSPA) against (increased usage is bad for people's health, they said.)

The bill's 10 sponsors, all democrats, include lefty shoreline-area Rep. Maralyn Chase (D-32) and Seattle area liberals like Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43) and Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-34). No vote was taken at yesterday's public hearing. Next up: A January 20 executive session the public safety committee.

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