Activists: New Wash. pot push calibrated to voters

June 22, 2011 - 8:00 PM
Legalizing Marijuana

Travel guide Rick Steves speaks during a news conference announcing the filing of an initiative to legalize possession of marijuana in Washington state Wednesday, June 22, 2011, in Seattle. New Approach Washington, a coalition group including Steves, Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, former U.S. Attorney John McKay and the state ACLU chapter, is pushing an initiative to the Legislature that would regulate the recreational use of marijuana in a way similar to how the state regulates alcohol. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

SEATTLE (AP) — A new push to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Washington state is carefully calibrated to what voters will support — and to what will keep state workers from getting into trouble with federal agents, activists said Wednesday after filing the initiative.

The measure, backed by former Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and travel-guide entrepreneur Rick Steves, calls for legalizing up to an ounce of pot to be sold and taxed at state-licensed stores.

The money would bring in at least $215 million a year in taxes, which would largely be earmarked for drug treatment and education, while eroding the black market that fuels drug-related crime in the state, supporters said.

The group, New Approach Washington, must collect 241,000 valid signatures by the end of this year to send the initiative to the Legislature, which can pass it outright or allow it to go to a public vote on the November 2012 ballot.

"I'm so excited Washington can take the lead in helping our country out of this wrong-minded, very costly war on marijuana," Steves said during a news conference at the Seattle Public Library. He insisted that virtually everyone who wants to smoke marijuana already does, so there's no reason not to legalize and tax it.

More than 8,200 people in Washington were arrested for simple marijuana possession in 2008, and their arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment cost the state millions of dollars, the organization said.

Washington is one of at least three states, along with California and Colorado, expected to consider marijuana legalization next year, said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the Washington initiative might draw organized opposition.

Jamie Daniels, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said her group opposes marijuana legalization generally but has not taken a position on the initiative.

"Marijuana does impair the senses," she said. "It impairs people's logical thinking functions so they do things that law enforcement officers don't like."

She also suggested it is a gateway to harder drugs — a theory Steves dismissed by saying the only reason marijuana might be a gateway drug is because of prohibition itself: People must get their pot from drug dealers, who sometimes have a profit motive for getting them hooked on harder stuff.

Previous legalization efforts have failed in Washington and other states, including California last year. In Washington, another group, Sensible Washington, is trying this year for a second time to collect enough signatures in support of a far broader measure — one that would simply remove all state criminal and civil penalties for marijuana use, sale and possession.

New Approach Washington's campaign manager, Alison Holcomb, said that effort is too sweeping to win popular support. She said she and others in her organization have been closely monitoring public opinion about marijuana for years, and they crafted their new proposal accordingly. For example, the measure would not allow people to grow their own marijuana for recreational purposes; polls suggest that people remain uneasy with the notion that marijuana gardens could proliferate in their neighborhoods, she said.

Under the bill it also would remain illegal for a consumer to give or sell marijuana to someone else. Pot could be possessed only by people 21 and older, and marijuana would be defined as cannabis that contains a certain minimum level of the active ingredient THC — possibly clearing the way for industrial hemp production down the road, Holcomb said.

Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have created a state system for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries over concern that it would require state workers to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act by inspecting marijuana grow operations, among other things.

New Approach's legislation would avoid that problem by requiring state workers to license grow operations or marijuana stores without actively participating in violations of federal law, Holcomb said.

Polling suggests that a narrow majority of Washington voters would support the initiative, Holcomb said.

"We're going to try something that's a very controlled experiment," she said. "It's important that we end prohibition in 2012, not that we get it perfect."

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Gene Johnson can be reached at http://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle