Powerful coalition supports decriminalization, launches initiative to the legislature
by Rahul K. Gairola -
SGN Contributing Writer
On June 22, a panel of diverse state leaders hosted a press conference at the Central Seattle Public Library to sponsor the legalization, taxation, and regulation of cannabis in the state of Washington. New Approach Washington, a newly formed political action committee, filed an initiative on Wednesday to authorize the Washington State Liquor Control Board to produce and distribute marijuana to state residents 21 and over as it already does with hard liquor. The revenue generated would go into the state's general fund, as well as local budgets.
Among the proposal's sponsors are Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36th District), Robert Wood, M.D., former director of the HIV/ AIDS Program of Public Health of Seattle and King County, and Alison Holcomb, J.D., campaign director for the committee and drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington. Though recent headlines emphasized former U.S. Attorney John McKay's support of the initiative, he was not present on the panel. Holmes inaugurated the public forum by asserting that although alcohol is legal and regulated by the state, its adverse effects on consumers are far worse than those of cannabis.
Mark Johnson, 2008-9 Washington State Bar Association president, followed. 'The process of drug mitigation has been an unprecedented disaster,' he said. Johnson noted that the estimated agricultural revenue of marijuana would potentially make it the second most profitable cash crop in the state after apples, generating one billion dollars a year for the state, and $35 billion for the nation. Wood contributed a medical evaluation, stating, 'The Institute of Medicine & determined that, frankly, not much evidence of harm [from smoking marijuana] exists,' and went on to mention the sociological effects of the criminalization of marijuana, touching on incarceration and the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout communities of color, predominantly the African-American community.
Travel writer Rick Steves gave a transnational perspective to the panel, citing cases where countries benefit from responsible legalization. 'Europe is also driven by fiscal responsibility - they save a lot of money by treating this as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.' He cited the case of the decriminalization of all drugs in Portugal, and also gave examples in Spain and the Netherlands where marijuana is effectively regulated and contributes to the economy. Steves moreover noted that U.S. prohibition of alcohol (1919-1933) escalated violence while feeding organized crime rings.
He paralleled prohibition of alcohol to the prohibition of marijuana, which was instituted by the 1937 passage of the Marijuana Tax Act after the FBI led a widespread propaganda campaign against cannabis. In response to the argument that 'pot is a gateway drug' leading to others, Steves stated, 'The only thing 'gateway' about marijuana is illegality.' He asserted that 'speaking out is our civic duty,' and urged state voters to 'take the lead in getting our country out of this wrong-minded, very costly war on marijuana.' Before concluding, he disclosed his personal stake in the proposal: 'I care about the poor and minorities whose lives are being messed up.'
Drawing on her work with the ACLU and over a decade of state and federal litigation experience, Holcomb broached the topic from the perspective of social justice. 'The 'War on Drugs,' which comes on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, has become the new Jim Crow,' she said, referring to the state and local laws that legislated 'separate but equal' white privileges from 1876 to 1965. 'We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world,' said Holcomb. In addition to populations of color, she also noted that this is a 'community initiative' that positively impacts the LGBTQ community, youths, HIV/ AIDS patients, terminally ill citizens, and other demographics that are more likely to be drug enforcement targets given their life situations.
Recognizing the massive state expenditure in the war against cannabis, the prison industrial complex, and race discrimination, Holcomb said these social costs to taxpayers would decrease while state revenue would increase through the regulated sales of cannabis. However, Holcomb also recognized that approval at the state level did not mean approval at the federal level. Residents would be free to buy but not grow cannabis, and highway patrols could stop and test drivers for being under the influence (since driving on the freeway implies consent, refusing to take the test can lead to a suspended license). When asked about state polls, Holcomb concluded that a majority of state residents (53-54%) support the initiative.
State Senator Ed Murray (D-43rd District), though absent from the panel, exclusively told SGN, 'It is a common sense proposal. I support it, but more importantly it has support across the political spectrum.' The campaign has until December 30 to gather 241,153 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Once the signatures are filed, the legislature will consider the initiative during the 2012 session. If the legislature takes no action, the proposal will be put to state voters in the November 2012 general election.
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