OLYMPIA – Washington legislators are spending some of their time on pot this week, discussing it both as a potential revenue source through outright legalization, and as an administrative problem stemming from the medical marijuana law 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 measure they claim would be worth $440 million in a two-year state budget 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 that 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 state 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 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 marijuana 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, 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 dispensers with a hearing on a proposal to regulate growers, processors and dispensaries, and to 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, the state Agriculture 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 of patients could be arrested for marijuana possession but could still use the defense at trial that it was for medical purposes.
That bill was criticized by some already in the medical marijuana dispensary business, who said it would wipe them out. Steve Sarich, of Seattle-based CannaCare, which operates a dispensary and a clinic, said the timelines 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 nonprofit operations, but the Internal Revenue Service won’t give nonprofit 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.