Former U.S. attorney pushes pot legalization

SEATTLE — A man who once served as the Justice Department’s top official in Seattle said Tuesday that he is sponsoring an initiative to legalize and tax marijuana in Washington state, a measure he hopes will help “shame Congress” into ending pot prohibition.

John McKay spent five years enforcing federal drug laws as the U.S. attorney in Seattle before he was fired by the Bush administration in early 2007. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that laws criminalizing marijuana are wrongheaded because they create an enormous black market exploited by international cartels and crime rings.

“That’s what drives my concern: The black market fuels the cartels, and that’s what allows them to buy the guns they use to kill people,” McKay said. “A lot of Americans smoke pot and they’re willing to pay for it. I think prohibition is a dumb policy, and there are a lot of line federal prosecutors who share the view that the policy is suspect.”

McKay is joining Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, travel guide Rick Steves (who writes a column for The Herald) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in pushing an initiative to the Legislature that would regulate the recreational use of marijuana in a way similar to how the state regulates alcohol. Their bill would legalize marijuana for people older than 21, authorize the Liquor Control Board to regulate and tax marijuana for sale in “standalone stores,” and extend drunken driving laws to marijuana, with blood tests to determine how much of pot’s active ingredient is present in a driver’s blood.

Activists would have until the end of this year to gather more than 240,000 signatures to get the initiative before the Legislature. Lawmakers will have a chance to approve it or allow it to go to the ballot.

Taxing marijuana sales would bring the state $215 million a year, conservatively estimated, Holmes said.

In a telephone interview from Idaho, where he was about to leave on a six-day rafting trip on the Salmon River, McKay said he has long considered marijuana prohibition a failed policy, but that as U.S. attorney his job was to enforce federal law, and he had no problem doing so. Among the people he prosecuted was Canada’s so-called “Prince of Pot,” Marc Emery, who fought extradition after his 2005 arrest but eventually was sentenced to five years in prison for selling millions of marijuana seeds to U.S. residents.

“When you look at alcohol prohibition, it took the states to say, ‘This policy is wrong,'” McKay said. “This bill might not be perfect, but it’s a good step forward. I think it will eventually shame Congress into action.”

Holmes said McKay’s involvement in the legalization effort helps demonstrate its sensibility.

“Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, in law enforcement or a medical provider, you look at the data and you come to the same conclusion: The war on drugs has failed,” he said.

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