A Bill to Decriminalize Pot Is Popular with Voters—So Why Won't the Legislature Pass It?
Stoners get caricatured as layabouts who talk in circles, shrug off their responsibilities, and leave hard work to other people. But when it comes to reforming pot laws in Washington, it's not stoners embodying this stereotype.
As this year's legislative session begins, one of the bills still kicking around from last year's session—after it stalled in the state house without a hearing—is a measure that would decriminalize marijuana. The bill would replace the existing penalty for possessing pot (up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine) with just a $100 citation, like a parking ticket. A fiscal report by the state's Office of Financial Management shows the measure would save $11,283,360 a year in prosecution and jail costs. And relaxing pot penalties is plenty popular with voters. Polling data conducted in 2006 shows that 67 percent of state voters want marijuana possession to be decriminalized or legalized completely; national polls show a steady climb in support for removing all penalties for marijuana.
At first blush, pot reform in Washington appears to be making headway this year. The bill got a hearing in the house on the third day of the legislative session. But a closer examination shows the bill is likely to flounder. Despite plenty of reasons to approve the measure—again, it would save money and has strong statewide support from constituents—there's plenty of endless buck-passing in Olympia. When pressed, lawmakers end up talking in circles about it and pointing fingers at each other, at the public, at Washington, D.C.—all while waiting for someone else to do the hard work for them.
Like, say, a bunch of disaffected stoners.
Thankfully, a small minority of lawmakers are showing some spine. "It's not an issue about wanting to get stoned," says state representative Dave Upthegrove (D-33), prime sponsor of the house bill. "It's about drug policy that makes more sense and is more effective." But he says fellow Democrats are nervous about approving a controversial law that could trigger a conservative backlash.
If you ask state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), the prime sponsor of the bill in the senate (and another of the few with spine), the bill has a chance of clearing the senate but is facing a more difficult challenge in the house. Over there, house Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) points to his assembly of lawmakers and to the chair of the committee in which the decriminalization bill is getting its start. "I don't control all the votes," Chopp says. (Quite a claim, considering Chopp is notorious for running his chamber with an iron fist.)
The chair of the committee in question, Representative Christopher Hurst (D-31), says he can't support the bill because it conflicts with federal law. A former narcotics detective for the Black Diamond Police Department, Hurst holds absolute authority to prevent the marijuana bill from ever leaving his Public Safety Committee. He claims that decriminalizing marijuana would confuse people who may sail into federally patrolled waters or drive into national parks; they could be prosecuted unwittingly for marijuana possession, he argues. But over a dozen states have decriminalized marijuana, including Nevada in 2001 and Massachusetts in 2008, and "no state has ever reported experiencing such a problem," says Alison Holcomb, drug policy director of the ACLU of Washington.
But then Hurst—who talks in circles when told the federal conflict has no play in low-level pot prosecutions—also points his finger at Congress. "It is up to federal government to make that decision," Hurst says. "It doesn't rest with the states."
Next, Hurst claims, unbelievably, "Police don't book people for small amounts of marijuana. This idea that people are out there being booked into jail for small amounts of marijuana is preposterous." What's more preposterous—especially from a former cop—is that his statement is at odds with the state's Administrative Office of the Courts, which found that 12,463 cases were filed for misdemeanor possession in 2008, and 5,280 cases resulted in conviction. On average, defendants served 4.3 days per conviction, for a total number of 22,704 jail days. Even more frustrating, this information is in the fiscal note (prepared by the state) that accompanies the bill sitting on Hurst's desk.
Regardless, Hurst says, "I don't see the votes there in the house or the senate" to pass the bill.
While Hurst is trying to pass this hot potato off onto others, certain legislators want to pass it directly to voters in Washington State.
Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) recommends that, instead of hoping for the legislature to pass it, citizens should take the initiative by running a ballot measure. "Most [lawmakers] perceive that there is not a lot to be gained politically by taking this on," Goodman says. But Holcomb at the ACLU of Washington, which has been pressing hard on the legislature to pass marijuana decriminalization for years, points out that last year the senate voted the bill out of committee and none of the senators faced a backlash. She calls that "a strong signal to our Washington legislators that their constituents are ready to pass this bill."
Moreover, running a citizens' initiative typically requires 10 months of work and costs over $2 million—whereas the legislature can do it in a few weeks without spending an additional dime.
Still, some want to try going for broke with an initiative. On January 11, a new group called Sensible Washington filed an initiative that would legalize marijuana outright.
"There are just not enough people in the house and senate willing to step up and vote for it," says Philip Dawdy, coauthor of the initiative and a freelance journalist. With plans to get the measure on the ballot for under $100,000, the ambitious pot measure has more than an uphill battle. Passing it would be like climbing Mount Everest while fighting the Huns. But the steep fight of an initiative may be the only way Washington will ever change pot laws—even taking a moderate step like decriminalizing possession of small amounts, never mind legalizing pot completely.
"Sometimes you have to do things by initiative because the legislature doesn't want to do it," said Speaker Chopp, speaking about controversial proposals. Is the legislature shirking its responsibility by asking the public to pick up the tab for an expensive initiative? "I'm not advocating that we do initiatives. I'm just saying sometimes that's the way to get things done," he said.
Naturally, some lawmakers and citizens are fed up.
State representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) has filed a bill that would completely legalize marijuana and regulate its sale like liquor. But—familiar story—Dickerson's bill doesn't have a chance because others in Olympia think it's too hot to touch.