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Washington lawmakers debate marijuana’s legal status

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 Rep. Christopher Hurst, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, 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.”

The committee spent about two hours Tuesday considering House Bill 1550, a version of the perennial push for the state to legalize marijuana. Under the plan, any adult could smoke marijuana or grow it 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, the bill would put the state at the forefront of efforts to legalize marijuana, which remains a 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 homegrown marijuana to homemade beer and wine.

“We grew up with cannabis. We have to grow up about it,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, a co-sponsor.

State Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, said he doubts claims by supporters that legalizing marijuana would 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 current law to Prohibition and said legalizing marijuana will remove profits for criminals. Opponents said making marijuana more readily available will lead to more abuse.

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