Five activists filed a ballot initiative Monday that would legalize all adult marijuana possession, manufacturing and sales under Washington state law — one of the most sweeping efforts at marijuana reform playing out around the country this year.
Its sponsors include two Seattle lawyers and the director of Seattle's annual Hempfest. They call themselves Sensible Washington, and say that in a time of dire budget woes, the state's government should stop spending money on police, court and jail costs for people who use or produce marijuana.
Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer who represents medical marijuana patients, told The Associated Press the proposal would remove all state criminal penalties for adults who possess, grow and distribute pot — no matter how much. Criminal penalties for juveniles who possess marijuana and for those who provide the drug to juveniles would remain in place.
Driving under the influence of the drug also would still be against the law. And marijuana would remain illegal under federal law.
"It basically tells the federal government, 'Hey it's your prohibition — if you want it, you pay for it,'" Hiatt said. "We're tired of screwing around and wasting all this dough."
Volunteers are lining up to collect the more than 241,000 signatures required to place the initiative on the November ballot, Hiatt said.
The campaign has competition in Washington. One bill introduced here would legalize and regulate marijuana, while another would decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, making it punishable by a fine rather than jail time.
Legalization bills have also been introduced in California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Nevada, and a group campaigning to place a marijuana legalization measure before California voters said last month that it has enough signatures to qualify for this year's ballot.
Alison Holcomb, drug policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which is lobbying for the decriminalization bill, said she supports any effort to engage the public in discussing marijuana law reform, but she couldn't comment specifically on the initiative without reading it.
"If there were decriminalization of transfers of small amounts of marijuana not for profit, that might be one way to undermine the cartels' bottom line," she said. "But I think the push-back would be, are you just giving the gangsters a get-out-of-jail-free card in Washington state? Are you setting up incentives for criminal elements to come here and set up shop?"
Hiatt disputed that notion, saying the drug flourishes on the black market only because it is illegal. Furthermore, federal agents wouldn't stand for large-scale marijuana trafficking, he said.
He cited one recent study suggesting Washington could save tens of millions of dollars a year on law enforcement costs if marijuana was legal.
Hiatt said he was inspired to file the initiative in part by a recent conversation with Mason County prosecutor Gary Burleson, who told him to "put your money where your mouth is" and get an initiative before voters.
In an interview Monday, Burleson said he doesn't necessarily support legalizing marijuana — and certainly not in the unlimited, unregulated way the initiative proposes. But he said he's frustrated with Washington's complicated medical marijuana law, which authorizes patients to possess marijuana but is vague about how they can obtain it.
"Wouldn't legalizing this answer a whole lot of questions?" he said. "Aren't we just beating around the edges with all of these legal nuances?
"I don't have a problem with marijuana being legal, and I don't have a problem with it being illegal," Burleson said. "But right now, I have a big problem understanding what's legal and what's not."
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