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February 20, 2009 -- Seattle Times (WA)

Column: End The Collateral Damage Of Marijuana Misdemeanors And Save Tax Dollars

By Lance Dickie, Seattle Times editorial columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Two bills to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana appear doomed in the state Legislature. Timid politicians cost taxpayers millions.

A dozen other states have concluded jail time for simple possession of marijuana is ruinous public policy. Oregon made that call almost four decades ago. In a time of imploding government budgets, Olympia is averting its eyes from easy savings. The criminal-justice expense is a substantial and grievous waste of tax dollars.

Senate Bill 5615 and House Bill 1177 -- sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines -- would reclassify adult possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana as a civil infraction. A $100 fine payable through the mail, like a parking ticket. Current law is a mandatory day in jail, and up to 90 days behind bars.

The oversized penalty is just the start. A misdemeanor-marijuana conviction haunts an offender seemingly forever. Alison Holcomb, drug-policy director of the ACLU of Washington, said that record can lead to loss of employment, housing and federal financial aid for college.

The proposal to reclassify 40 grams of marijuana -- roughly two packs of cigarettes -- from a misdemeanor to a class 2 civil infraction passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday with bipartisan support.

At an earlier hearing, proponents, including the King County Bar Association, testified about the mistaken application of criminal sanctions to a public-health issue and the collateral damage of the convictions in personal lives. The misdemeanors get dragged into divorce and child-custody proceedings.

The default position for opponents declares marijuana a gateway to harder illegal drugs. Increasingly that argument does not hold up to analysis and long-term studies.

Cocaine users smoked marijuana. But the argument is turned on its head, according to professor Dale M. Lindekugel, of the Department of Sociology and Justice Studies at Eastern Washington University. Look instead at the number of people who try marijuana and go onto cocaine, and the percentage is small, Lindekugel said from his campus office.

State Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, chair of the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, flatly declares no hearing will be held. He argues it would be irresponsible to move a piece of legislation forward before the federal government removes marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

Hurst, a decorated police veteran, said he supports such a change, but Washington state should not act ahead of the federal government. Doing so, he argues, could lull citizens into harm's way with zero-tolerance federal authorities, such as the Coast Guard or border agents.

Hmmm. Mississippi, Maine, California, Oregon and Alaska, among others have survived. The feds may also have no interest in chippy law enforcement.

Holcomb and the ACLU report more than 11,000 arrests for misdemeanor-marijuana possession in 2007 in Washington state. The courts entered 3,600 convictions and imposed over 16,000 days in jail. Police time, court time and jail time consumed approximately $7.6 million. Feel any safer?

Two ACLU opinion polls found a majority of Washington residents divided between keeping a light penalty for small amounts used by adults and decriminalizing marijuana altogether.

Take the step with lots of experience around the country. Invest the law-enforcement savings into drug courts and public health.

Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.

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