Forum on decriminalizing marijuana set in Edmonds

EDMONDS — Is it time the state lightens up on those caught possessing a little pot?

That question will be a topic at a public forum Monday in Edmonds featuring a former U.S. attorney and a Seattle lawmaker who says lesser penalties will save millions of dollars for cash-starved cities, counties and the state.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D- Seattle, has authored legislation making possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor. Though the bill didn’t get far last session, she plans on pushing it hard when the Legislature gets to work in 2010.

She will be on a panel with former U.S. Attorney John McKay; former White House adviser Bud Krogh; and Rick Steves, Edmonds travel guru and television host known for his advocacy of changing laws regarding marijuana.

“This forum is important to broaden the public discussion” of the issue, said Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, another backer of decriminalizing marijuana use, who will be attending Monday.

Legislation introduced by Kohl-Welles passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and then stalled. A House version Roberts co-sponsored never received a hearing in that chamber.

Under existing law, possessing 40 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. What’s proposed would change the law as it pertains to adults, treating violations like a traffic ticket, with a $100 fine. Possessing even a small amount would remain a misdemeanor for juveniles.

This legislation is getting talked about among lawmakers seeking ways of cutting costs in the face of a $2 billion hole in the current budget.

“It will definitely be debated,” Roberts said. “I don’t know if that foretells any change in the law.”

A fiscal analysis of the legislation estimated the change would save money now spent on investigating and prosecuting thousands of cases a year.

In 2008, there were 5,280 convictions for possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. About a third ended up in a courtroom. If none of them had been tried and no one served time, an estimated $11,283,360 would have been saved, the analysis said.

The ACLU of Washington is organizing Monday’s forum.

It is slated to begin at 7 p.m. with the showing of an award-winning video on the history and impact of marijuana laws entitled “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation.”

“We spend billions every year and arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans simply for possessing marijuana,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington. “We need to ask whether our laws are really working. Are they doing more harm than good?”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623, jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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