OLYMPIA – While the Legislature wrestles with a huge budget shortfall that generates 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?
Technically, one bill could have a budget impact. House Bill 2401 would legalize marijuana, regulate its growth and sale, and generate as much as $300 million a biennium in taxes and fees, state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the bill’s sponsor, said.
In addition to that bill, 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, state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, is a co-sponsor of the legalization proposal. The decriminalization bill has two Spokane Democrats as co-sponsors, Timm Ormsby and Alex Wood; the legalization bill has no Spokane co-sponsors.
Both proposals 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 some drug abuse treatment and prevention professionals.
The House Public Safety and Preparedness Committee hearing was the most packed of the afternoon. People sporting pink hair or head-to-foot tattoos sat next to the more 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. To legislators worried that federal laws would still ban marijuana, they called for a state’s rights defense based on the 10th Amendment.
After several legislators wondered about the proposals’ effect on youth, they actually heard from one. Riley Harrison, a ninth-grader from Ridgeview Middle School in nearby Yelm, said 10 of his classmates recently were caught selling marijuana; legalizing it would be a bad sign 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?” he asked.
Rick Smith, of a group that filed an initiative earlier this week to legalize marijuana, suggested the Legislature do nothing: “We’re going to take it out of your hands, and we’re sorry about that. Just wait for our initiative; it’ll take care of everything.”
The committee scheduled a vote on the two bills next week.