OLYMPIA — Debate heated up Wednesday on whether the state would reap economic rewards or sow criminal behavior by legalizing the growing, selling and smoking of marijuana.
People packed a hearing room where lawmakers considered a bill to make use of marijuana legal for adults over 21 years old, regulating it like alcohol and selling it at state-owned liquor stores.
A second bill discussed by the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee would make possession of small amounts of pot an infraction carrying a $100 fine rather than a misdemeanor with possible time in jail.
The committee will vote next week on the proposed legislation.
“I think each bill is a step in the right direction for our state,” said James Andrus of the King County Bar Association, one of several lawyers testifying in support of the bills.
Former Republican state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner of Bellevue said the measures provide a path for the state to either spend less on criminal justice or generate much-needed revenue.
And, he said, he didn’t think the public would object.
“I really do think public opinion is evolving on this issue,” he said.
Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, said one reason she introduced the legalization bill was the potential for new tax revenues. She said the state Liquor Control Board has estimated it would bring in $300 million a biennium.
Most but not all speakers endorsed the measures.
Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said lessening the penalty for possession would lead to increased use among juveniles.
There are young people who don’t use marijuana now because it’s illegal, he said. If the state treated it like alcohol then some of those teens would change their behavior and try it out – as they do with alcohol.
Pierce what he was reiterating a few hours earlier when both he and Gov. Chris Gregoire told reporters they opposed the legislative efforts.
“I think there are more important things to be done (this session),” said Gregoire, adding she couldn’t see making it legal under state law if marijuana use remains illegal under federal law.
Pierce denounced as “nonsense” the contention the state could net hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and said there will be costs to society just as there is with alcohol.
“We don’t need our schools, our highways, our factories, our airplane cockpits full of people high on marijuana,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.
More on the House bills
House Bill 1177 would make possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana an infraction with a $100 fine for adults aged 18 years and older. Go to tinyurl.com/potbill1.
House Bill 2401 would make growing, possessing and smoking marijuana legal for adults aged 21 and older. Go to tinyurl.com/potbill2.