Supporters, foes debate marijuana initiative

By Sara Bruestle | May 02, 2012

If there’s one thing Washington state residents can agree on when it comes to marijuana it’s this: Marijuana regulation is hazy, at best.

However, a panel of law enforcement and public health experts was divided in how to clarify, or fix, regulation in a debate held April 26 at Mukilteo City Hall on Initiative 502, which would regulate and tax marijuana similarly to liquor. About 70 people attended the debate.

John McKay, a sponsor of the initiative, said that after serving as a U.S. attorney in Seattle for several years, he sees marijuana legalization as a better solution to the “complete failure” of prohibition. He said marijuana prohibition has not only failed – it’s dangerous.

“Mexican drug cartels and other gangs… are profiting from this marijuana black market created by our failed policy on prohibition,” he said. “It’s directly related to killings, to death, to the use of those funds to manufacture seriously dangerous drugs.

“If we’re going to attack this black market, we have to change the way that we look at it.”

The state Liquor Control Board and Department of Revenue – which would license and regulate marijuana under I-502 – estimate that if the initiative passes, the state would make $2 billion in tax revenue by 2018, according to a recent fiscal note.

“Let’s capture the tax benefits and use the funds to teach young people of the risks of marijuana,” McKay said.

Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Regional Task Force, disagreed with McKay’s argument that regulating marijuana would end the black market.

“If you create a sin tax, you’re still going to create a black market,” he said. “We’re still going to have people out there producing it and selling it for less than what the government does.”

His greatest concern – although he is concerned that law enforcement will continue to waste its time and taxpayers dollars with I-502 – is the “young people” McKay said the initiative would help.

He said marijuana is the most abused drug in local high schools and that, if this initiative passes, it will only become more available to kids.

“Those kids are our future,” Slack said. “We can’t control our demand, so we legalize it? If we can’t control prostitution, do we legalize it? If we’re giving up on the battle, we’re giving up on our youth.”

I-502 removes state criminal and civil penalties for the possession, sale and cultivation of marijuana. It would tax marijuana sales and set a legal driving limit of 5 nanograms of THC – the main active chemical compound – in the bloodstream.

Under the initiative, residents 21 years and older could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana, one pound of marijuana-infused food, such as brownies, or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused drinks, such as tea.

Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law. Currently in Washington state, it is a misdemeanor to possess 40 grams or less of marijuana.

Washington’s initiative was the first in the nation to be approved. Colorado is the only other state with an initiative to legalize marijuana on its November ballot. No state has fully legalized marijuana.

Joining McKay in support of I-502 was Roger Roffman, a professor of social work and marijuana researcher at the University of Washington. Also debating the cons of I-502 with Slack was Jim Teverbaugh of the Snohomish County Health and Safety Network.

“We know that prohibition is not working well enough for three key factors,” Roffman said.

“One of them is the number of people who go astray and get derailed from healthy development, a second is the ease of access that young people acknowledge that they have, and a third is the gross amount of misinformation of marijuana and under acknowledgement of its risks.”

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