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November 25, 2009 -- Kirkland Reporter (WA)

OpEd: Washington State Should Decriminalize Marijuana

By Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Toby Nixon

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Once again, the annual [Seattle] Hempfest drew tens of thousands to parks along Seattle's waterfront this past summer. In its mission statement, the all-volunteer organization that produces the event says, "The public is better served when citizens and public officials work cooperatively in order to successfully accomplish common goals."

We agree. That is why we, as a Democratic state senator and former Republican state representative, support Senate Bill 5615. This bill would reclassify adult possession of marijuana from a crime carrying a mandatory day in jail to a civil infraction imposing a $100 penalty payable by mail.

SB 5615 was voted out of committee with a bipartisan "do pass" recommendation and will be considered by legislators in 2010.

The bill makes a lot of sense, especially in this time of severely strapped budgets. Our state Office of Financial Management reported annual savings of $16 million and $1 million in new revenue if SB 5615 passes. Of that $1 million, $590,000 would be earmarked for the Washington State Criminal Justice Treatment Account to increase support of our underfunded drug treatment and prevention services.

The idea of decriminalizing marijuana is far from new. In 1970, Congress created the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. A bipartisan body with 13 members -- nine appointed by President Nixon and four by Congress -- the commission was tasked with conducting a yearlong, authoritative study of marijuana.

When the commission issued its report, "Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding," in 1972, it surprised many by recommending decriminalization:

"Possession of marihuana in private for personal use would no longer be an offense; and distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be an offense."

Twelve states took action and decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s. Nevada decriminalized marijuana in 2001, and Massachusetts did so in 2008.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, states where marijuana possession is decriminalized represent over 35 percent of our nation's population.

These states have not seen a corresponding increase in use. Nor have the 14 states that have adopted legal protections for patients whose doctors recommend the medical use of marijuana, or the several cities and counties that have adopted "lowest law enforcement priority" ordinances like Seattle's Initiative 75, which made adult marijuana use the city's lowest law enforcement priority in 2003.

On the flip side of the coin, escalating law enforcement against marijuana users has not achieved its intended goals. From 1991 to 2007, marijuana arrests nationwide tripled from 287,900 to a record 872,720, comprising 47 percent of all drug arrests combined. Of those, 89 percent were for possession only. Nevertheless, according to a study released earlier this year by two University of Washington faculty members:

* The price of marijuana has dropped;

* Its average potency has increased;

* It has become more readily available; and

* Use rates have often increased during times of escalating enforcement.

We now have decades of proof that treating marijuana use as a crime is a failed strategy. It continues to damage the credibility of our public health officials and compromise our public safety. At a fundamental level, it has eroded our respect for the law and what it means to be charged with a criminal offense: Fully 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lives. It cannot be that 40 percent of Americans truly are criminals. We hope citizens will work with us to help pass SB 5615, the right step for Washington to take toward a more effective, less costly, and fairer approach to marijuana use.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-District 36) chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. Toby Nixon was state representative for the 45th Legislative District.

Also visit our "WA State Activism" section.

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