OLYMPIA – Washington state could collect about $200 million a year by legalizing marijuana, then regulating, taxing and selling it in state liquor stores, a legislative panel was told Tuesday.
But the state could also wind up with no money and any liquor store employee who rang up a marijuana sale facing five years in federal prison, the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee warned.
The committee spent about two hours Tuesday morning considering House Bill 1550, a version of the perennial push for the state to legalize marijuana, or cannabis as the sponsors prefer to call the plant. Under the plan, any adult could smoke marijuana, grow their own in a plot no bigger than 50 square feet, and the state would regulate and sell the drug at liquor stores. Farmers could also grow hemp, which comes from the plant.
If passed, this would put the state in the forefront efforts to legalize marijuana, which remains an illegal and controlled substance under federal law. That would be a good thing as other states follow suit, said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor.
“Why shouldn’t Washington reap the benefits of legalization,” asked Dickerson, who estimated the state could collect $400 million per biennium from taxes and sales. She likened home-grown marijuana to home-brewing of beer and wine making.
“We grew up with cannabis. We have to grow up about it,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, a co-sponsor.
But Rep. Christopher Hurst, the committee chairman, doubted the state would keep any money as long as federal laws remain in place: “The federal government will seize every penny of that revenue. Employees in liquor stores that sell marijuana will be arrested and face five years in federal prison.”
Washington could pass the law and fight the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court, Dickerson countered. “Some state has to take the lead. Because we take the lead, we will reap the benefit.”
If the federal government fights the state over legalization, Goodman added, “the people will rise up and say ‘This doesn’t make sense.’”
State Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, said he doubted claims by supporters that legalizing marijuana will reduce use among teenagers, even though it would still be illegal for anyone under 21. It’s illegal for teens to drink, but they still do, he said.
Legalization will take the “cool” factor out of marijuana, Goodman insisted: “If grandma’s using it for cancer (treatment) it’s not cool anymore.”
Supporters of the bill likened it to Prohibition in the 1920s, and said legalizing marijuana will remove profits for criminals. Opponents said making marijuana more readily available will lead to more abuse. Both sides were skeptical of the other’s research, which is sometimes contradictory.
“I think the school of common sense comes into effect here,” Ross said. “If you legalize it totally…would you not see an even worse end result?”