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Marijuana penalties subject of proposal in Wash. Legislature

Small amounts would trigger fines

OLYMPIA – Civil liberties groups, medical marijuana supporters and a smattering of music festivalgoers may have reason to rejoice: The Legislature is considering a proposal that would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

A bill proposed by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, would reduce the penalty for possessing marijuana in quantities of 1.4 ounces or less to a civil infraction carrying a $100 fine.

“Marijuana has been demonized and has been demonized in such an overboard manner,” Kohl-Welles said Tuesday.

Currently, possession of small amounts of the drug is a misdemeanor offense, warranting arrest and carrying the possibility of punishment with fines and jail time.

If Kohl-Welles’ bill is approved, possession of marijuana would no longer be an offense subject to arrest. However, teenagers younger than 18 would still be subject to current law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the bill Tuesday.

“Marijuana is less addictive than alcohol, tobacco or caffeine,” said former state Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, testifying before the committee. “The most dangerous thing about marijuana is the possibility of getting arrested for its possession. … I don’t think it’s the devil weed that many say that it is.”

Civil liberties groups support the measure, saying law enforcement officers should focus on more serious crimes.

Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said misdemeanor marijuana convictions are like scarlet letters for those convicted – job, home rental and federal financial aid applications are closely scrutinized as a result.

But the bill drew fire from anti-drug forces who argue marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead users to more serious drug abuse.

Seth Dawson of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention said marijuana use among early teens was a shared trait among many adult cocaine abusers. He said decriminalizing marijuana would send the wrong message to teenagers, and could lead to an increase in the number of marijuana users who get hooked on harder drugs.

Kohl-Welles, the bill’s sponsor, said there are people who benefit from responsible marijuana use. Kohl-Welles said she has friends and family who have been seriously ill who used marijuana to ease suffering and rekindle appetites.

Washington has a medical marijuana law on the books, but Kohl-Welles said she thinks her bill could give medical marijuana users more protection from possible arrest.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, joked that marijuana was in fact a gateway drug: “My own experience shows that marijuana is. I used to grow my own dope and now I brew my own beer.”

The room erupted into laughter and clapping before Kline added: “Just kidding.”

Despite his joking, Kline said the war on drugs was a serious matter.

“This war on drugs has gotten way beyond absurd. I’m 64 and I remember the beginning of the war on drugs – I lived through the 1960s,” he said. “This continuous use of military force is ridiculous. We’re talking about marijuana. We aren’t talking about the cocaine or heroin, or methamphetamine.”

Kline said he was confident the bill would pass out of his committee. No vote was immediately scheduled.

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