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January 18, 2010 -- Seattle Weekly (WA)

Crime & Punishment

A Q&A With Doug Hiatt of Legal Weed Initiative Sensible Washington

By Caleb Hannan

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


If Doug Hiatt gets his wish, all adult use of weed will be legal in Washington.

As a lawyer for medical marijuana patients, Doug Hiatt has witnessed first-hand how Washington's confusing, byzantine pot regulations can wreak havoc on the lives of sick people just looking for a little pain relief. But it wasn't until he was issued a personal challenge that he decided to do something about it.

Hiatt says Mason County prosecutor Gary Burleson told him to put his money where his mouth was and put the issue to voters. Teaming with two other lawyers and the director of Seattle's Hempfest, Hiatt formed Sensible Washington, an initiative that would remove all state criminal penalties for adults who possess, grow and distribute pot - no matter how much.

Seattle Weekly got in touch with Hiatt as he was jumping through some of the bureaucratic hoops required of Washington ballot hopefuls -- opening a bank account, doing Public Disclosure Commission filings and "having more fun than a human being should be allowed." After the jump, Hiatt talks about what makes his initiative different than the other legalization legislation floating around Olympia, why voters are smarter than politicians and how medical marijuana use might benefit the current Speaker of the House.

Hiatt says Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson's legalization bill won't even get a vote.

Why this initiative? Why now?

Next year is my 20th year of practice. Drug policy reform is the one of the reasons why I went to law school in the first place.

You know what's happened in this country due to the drug wars and the draconian federal drug laws is that we've become the number one jailer in the entire world. I mean we have over two and half million people in prison and in this country and a very large percentage of them are non violent drug offenders. I don't believe it's a moral thing to lock somebody up for using a substance. I just believe locking someone up for that is immoral. If they want to harm themselves and maybe harm others with their habit that's a mental health or addiction or a medical problem. It's not an intentional criminal act.

It's not someone trying to hurt somebody or trying to burn down somebody's house or trying to rape somebody or murder somebody. This is somebody that's got an addiction and this is a medical problem and should be treated that way and not with prison.

Our debate about the marijuana law which was brought into being by voters from Washington state has been completely disrespected by most politicians. Virtually all law enforcement and most prosecutors' offices are having real trouble with it. It hasn't been respected by law enforcement and what people wanted to have happen by patients and doctors has never happened.

Our state marijuana laws make it a crime for anyone to give marijuana, selling marijuana or giving marijuana away is the same thing. You don't have to charge for it, it's still a crime. So the way this initiative works is it simply removes criminal penalties for adults--adults only. Remove penalties for adults for any possession, cultivation, delivery or manufacture, anything like that. All criminal penalties related to marijuana are repealed on the state law. The only thing left in place is the federal law and the federal law should in theory focus more on large level drug trafficking organizations that are out there to make profit or prey on people. Those laws will still be in effect.

Marijuana will still be under all federal law, but all the state criminal penalties will be removed. The state would save in the neighborhood of $150 million dollars a year and lots of peoples lives would not be ruined and we wouldn't be wasting our time prosecuting people for what is a very safe, benign, therapeutic substance--marijuana.

The $150 million dollar figure which you cited is the same number that (State House Rep. Mary Lou) Dickerson has been using for her bill. You guys have roughly the same goals. So why do we need this initiative?

Because her bill by its own terms doesn't go into effect until federal law changes. I mean, they're not gonna, that bill is not going to do anything until federal law changes, really. And the reason we need this initiative for one thing is that that bill is dead in the legislature. That legalization bill is flat out dead. It's not going to even get a hearing in the senate.

Why do you say that?

I mean, that's what I'm hearing. That's what the papers are saying; that's what all the politicians are saying; that's what I'm believing from reading the press.

Have you spoken with Rep. Dickerson?

I haven't spoken directly with Ms. Dickerson. I've talked with other folks you know that are part of the process in the House and the word that I hear is that the Senate may have a hearing on the bill but that it isn't going to get a vote in the house.

So I think it's important that this initiative cannot be struck down on preemptive grounds. This initiative can be a very powerful first step in drug policy reform. It can help medical marijuana patients; it can help anyone that wants to farm hemp. It's something that the people of Washington state can send a very clear signal to the federal government and the state government that yeah, we want this done.

If our initiative passes it will require the legislature to go back the next year and do what they say they're going to do now. Under our bill we remove the criminal penalties - that's the best we can do as citizens.

Then they have to come up with a pact that can regulate --- or some type of way to regulate it civilly. And we're going to leave that open and were leaving the legislature with an open field to do it and there's no prohibition since our initiative doesn't deal with civil penalties. My view is that this forces the legislature to do regulation that everybody's talking about.

What sort of federal reaction would you expect if this gets on the ballot and actually passes?

The federal government doesn't have the resources nor does it, I think anymore under this administration, have the inclination to mess around with Washington. I think that under this administration they respect comity. They would respect federal state comity and they would understand that this is precisely what the constitution contemplated. People don't realize that the whole debate over medical marijuana and the conflict between state and federal law is the most significant constitutional crisis issue that there has been in this country since slavery.

Why is that?

Because from a constitutional standpoint this is the first time that you've had states' rights at issue. You've got states acting as laboratories and deviating from federal law. That's the way its supposed to be. If they want to break off and have an experiment that's exactly what one of the founders wrote about. That's the kind of thing that should happen. One of the states may break away and have an experiment and do something great for the rest of the country. That's what federalism is all about. Reinvigorating our country with some federalism isn't a bad thing.

Have you and any unlikely allies lend their support?

Yeah, I'm always finding allies in strange places. People are very much supportive of medical marijuana and they really want sick people left alone. Washington state voters are a very intelligent bunch and a very compassionate bunch. And I don't think that anybody who voted for medical marijuana is happy with the way that people have been treated and I think that comes up every time I'm in court.

I've had lots of people contact us about wanting to help out. People are pledging money; people are sending money. Obviously we need all the help we can get, all the money we can get, all the signature gathering we can get. It's always an uphill battle but we're getting there.

Have you spoken to any of the people who are running legalization initiatives elsewhere?

Yes I have. The people that ran the Breckenridge Initiative (Ed note: Last November, Breckenridge voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative that decriminalized adult possession of less than an ounce) are friends of mine. The folks at Hemp Fest. We know some of the people in California. We're in contact with the larger reform community, but they had nothing to do with this. This was a purely homegrown thing. It's unique to Washington. It's the most unique reform initiative that's out there.

Why do you think some of those other initiative failed and what are you doing to try to avoid those pitfalls?

One thing we're doing differently is that we're not trying to establish tax regulation, not trying to establish all these things at once. We're just doing something very simple, very clean very pure that cannot be, by federal law, cannot be bogged down in a lawsuit.

These are very simple, very clear, powerful statements. If you're in favor of drug reform; if you're in favor of helping medical marijuana patients; if you're a hemp farmer; then you're in favor of this because it strengthens your position. And its just a crisp clean clear unequivocal statement that as voters we are fed up with not getting the responses we want and not getting what we want when we do initiatives on medical marijuana and other things. We're fed up and we want to send a message to stop wasting this money.

Of course, on the federal level, it's $50, $70, $80 billion dollars a year depending on how you count it. We could all have Cadillac health care if we got rid of this war on drugs. And everyone knows it's a failure, but no politician has the guts to admit it and do anything about it. But the people do.

People are smart. The people are way out in front on this. And just a little snap poll that was done the other day by Survey USA shows that there's 56 percent or so that are in favor of out right legalization. That says a lot and says that this is a pretty sophisticated electorate we've got here.

You keep saying "crisp, clear language." You seem to be describing this as the kind of unmisinterpretable law that every lawyer seeks.

Well, yeah. It seems like we had crisp, clear, unequivocal statements before and then they don't get heeded. The medical marijuana law was going to work, but it doesn't of course. They pick at it and try to run it down, so this is something that is very clean, very clear.

We're removing all criminal penalties for adult marijuana involvement. That makes it clear hemp is legal, it makes it clear that medical marijuana is legal and we want people left alone. It makes it clear that recreational use needs to be regulated somehow so they can come back and do that. And it makes it clear that we don't want to spend $150 million a year screwing around with this anymore.

Any help from the national organizations?

I haven't heard from anybody, but I wouldn't rule it out. We'll take help, but this is a Washington thing and it's not going to be taken over by national organizations or anything. We certainly don't turn down help. We welcome all help. Anybody that wants to help or donate, we're there and were inclusive and were trying to build a grassroots organization here and we want everybody's help

Where can people send help?

For right now there's going to be a website that's already up. There's a Facebook page. We're going to have web-based contributions up here pretty quick under Sensible Washington. But anybody that cares to donate or send a check right now can send it 3161 Elliott Avenue, Suite 340, Seattle 98121. And they can address it to Sensible Washington, c/o Douglas Hiatt. That goes to my law office and all the donations will go into the sensible Washington account.

Last question: What's up (Speaker of the House) Frank Chopp's ass?

(laughs) I don't know. You'd have to ask Frank. But I certainly think that Mr. Chopp could benefit by exploring the effects of medical marijuana for stress relief and maybe other things as well.

I'm being a little factious there, but I really don't know what's wrong with the Democratic party in general. There are a lot of progressives out here and a lot of folks here who are pragmatic and want pragmatic solutions and we just don't seem to be getting that from politicians. They just seemed to be locked up in an ideological battle that we all lost interest in a long time ago.

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

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