While the Legislature wrestles with a huge budget shortfall that forces hearings on everything from closing state institutions to raising college tuition, the most heavily attended hearing Wednesday involved a non-budget item.
Marijuana. Should the state legalize it, or turn it into a civil infraction? Or just wait a few months to see if voters pass an initiative to legalize it?
Although, technically, it’s not quite true this has nothing to do with the budget because House Bill 2401 would legalize marijuana, regulate its growth and sale and generate as much as $300 million a biennium in revenue in taxes and fees, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the bill’s sponsor said.
Dickerson, D-Seattle, is a co-sponsor of HB 1177, which would turn possession of small amounts of marijuana into an infraction similar to a speeding ticket. That bill’s prime sponsor Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, is a co-sponsor of the legalization proposal.
Both got support from the Washington State Bar Association as well as the King County bar and medical associations. Both got thumbs down from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and other law enforcement officials.
The hearing by the House Public Safety and Preparedness Committee was the most packed of the afternoon, and people with pink hair or head to foot tattoos sat next to the typical coat-and-tie lobbyists.
The most impassioned pleas came from people who regard marijuana as a cure or treatment for diseases, or a civil right. They suggested the state legalize marijuana despite federal laws against it, and assert a state’s rights defense based on the 10th Amendment.
Others said cities, counties and the state could save money on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for small amounts of marijuana.
But the reviews were not all positive. Riley Harrison, a ninth grader from Ridgeview Middle School in nearby Yelm, said 10 of his classmates were recently caught selling marijuana; legalizing pot would send the wrong message to him and other students.
“What message does the Legislature want to send to the youth of Washington. That you’re willing to give up?” Harrison asked.
Rick Smith of the group that filed the initative earlier this week also suggested the Legislatlure do nothing on the issue.
“We’re going to take it out of your hands, and we’re sorry about that,” Smith said. Just wait for our initiative; it’ll take care of everything.”
The committee scheduled a vote on the two bills next week.