OLYMPIA – Legislators are spending some of their time on pot this week. Not smoking it, of course, but discussing it as both a potential revenue source, through outright legalization, and an administrative problem for the medical marijuana voters approved in 1998.
A day before the state's revenue forecast, supporters of a bill to legalize cannabis, a term they prefer over marijuana, made a push to revive a bill that they claim would be worth $440 million to the state budget in a two-year cycle.
HB 1550 already had one hearing last month in the House Public Safety Committee, where it attracted the usual list of supporters who noted some of the Founding Fathers grew hemp, and detractors who warned of growing usage by teens and drivers should marijuana become legal. That committee has yet to vote the bill up or down, but it was granted a special “work session” Wednesday in House Ways and Means, the budget-writing committee, to discuss the money the state might make from legalizing, taxing and selling marijuana in state liquor stores.
“We’re trying to help the Legislature understand the revenue prospects for the bill,” said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, the bill’s sponsor. . .
... States would also save on the costs of arresting, prosecuting and jailing people for marijuana possession, some supporters said.
But the bill doesn’t take effect until 2013, so the projected revenue wouldn’t help the state’s looming budget problem for the next two years. And one proponent of legalized marijuana who testified at Wednesday’s hearing said the revenue figure was dubious, at best.
John McKay, the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington appointed by George W. Bush, said the state won’t collect that kind of revenue without imposing such a high tax that people will skip the stores and grow their own. The cost of law enforcement won’t decline for years because organized crime is unlikely to walk away from their established operations, he said.
“I question the idea that massive dollars are available to states initially,” McKay said, adding there’s also a problem with federal laws that still classify it as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. “So long as the federal government continues to criminalize marijuana…it will be simultaneously legal and illegal to smoke marijuana.”
That conundrum between federal and state law already exists for medical marijuana, which has its own proposal working through the Legislature, but with somewhat more success.
SB 5073 already passed the Senate. On Monday the House Health Committee presided over the ongoing debate between law enforcement and medical marijuana with a hearing on proposal to have to regulate growers, processors and dispensaries, and allow patients with a doctor’s recommendation for the drug to volunteer to be on a list that protects them from arrest.
Under the plan, he state Ag Department would license growers and processors. The Health Department would inspect marijuana and set up a regulated supply chain that nets the state some money. Those who don’t volunteer for the list could be arrested for marijuana possession but could still use the defense that it was medical purposes at trial.
That bill was criticized by some already in the medical marijuana dispensary business, who said it would wipe them out. Steve Sarich of CannaCare, which operates a dispensary and a clinic, said the timelines are unrealistic and the requirements for inspections are unrealistic because the state has no marijuana testing labs and no private labs test a drug the federal government considers illegal.
The bill requires dispensaries to be non-profit operations, but the Internal Revenue Service won’t give non-profit status to an organization that sells marijuana, Sarich said.
“We need to fix the current legislation, but this has gone too far,” said Ken Martin, who works with more than two dozen dispensaries in the Spokane area.
Civil liberties groups objected to the voluntary patient list, saying the privacy of patients can’t be assured, and that if the alternative is being arrested, it’s not really voluntary