Pot's Shot

Marijuana Decriminalization Struggles in the Legislature

Photo By Alexodus Via Flickr

Twelve Democrats are cosponsoring a bill in the state house that would reduce the penalty for possessing up to 40 grams of marijuana to a civil infraction, subject to a $100 fine. It would only decriminalize marijuana possession, not legalize it. Introduced on January 14, this is the first legislative attempt to reform Washington's marijuana laws in decades. Under current state law, possessing even one joint is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

But does it stand a chance?

This seems an unlikely year for the legislature to embrace any civil-liberty-lovin' proposals, considering the top item on their agenda: bridging the state's $6 billion budget gap. However, the financial crisis may, paradoxically, prove a windfall. According to data from a report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates), the state spends over $1,000 per misdemeanor arrest and conviction. Using this estimate and applying it to the 11,553 pot-possession arrests (and 3,600 convictions) in Washington in 2007, the ACLU of Washington calculates that the state annually spends over $7.5 million on marijuana enforcement.

"I think any chances of passing will hinge on the opportunity to achieve budget savings and whether this proposal is less unpopular than other proposals for cost savings," says the bill's prime sponsor, Representative Dave Upthegrove (D-33). "Is it more controversial than closing parks?"

Upthegrove also hopes that, as a suburban representative, he gives the bill "a little political cover."

But the bill has already hit a roadblock. Representative Christopher Hurst (D-31), a former narcotics officer and ex-cop who chairs the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, refuses to give the bill a hearing. "I am concerned that [the bill] is in direct conflict with federal law," which makes possessing any quantity of marijuana a crime, he says. "If we tell citizens of Washington that marijuana is no longer a crime, and they cross the border and get arrested... or if they go out on their boat [and are arrested by the Coast Guard], they are not going to be happy with us."

However, it's unclear whether the federal government would bother prosecuting people for such a minor crime. Even federal law-enforcement officers can treat possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as an infraction, rather than arresting and jailing an offender. And Representative Roger Goodman (D-45), an attorney and former head of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project, says, "Federal law clearly allows the states to prescribe their own penalties, whether civil or criminal."

"Thirteen other states have already [decriminalized marijuana]"—including Massachusetts, where a measure similar to the one in the Washington State legislature passed a public vote in November by a 30-point margin—"and we haven't seen any of those other states struggle with [the] problem" of federal prosecution, says Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington's Drug Policy Project. California has made possession of marijuana a civil infraction, and, like Washington, it also sits on an international border and has a coastline patrolled by federal agents.

Hurst says that if a companion bill passes in the state senate and comes to his committee, he will give it a hearing.

State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36) says she'll introduce companion legislation within a week. But the bill faces an uphill battle in the senate, where it will have to get out of the judiciary committee. Three of the committee's eight members are Republicans and another member is conservative Democrat James Hargrove (D-24).

Meanwhile, no Republicans have cosponsored the current bill, making it a lefty long shot that could take years to pass, cosponsor Representative Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia) acknowledges. Cal Anderson, Washington's first gay legislator, "used to be a voice in the wilderness on gay civil-rights issues," he says. "You just keep plugging away and people start thinking in terms of the change." recommended

This story has been updated since it was originally published.


Comments (33) RSS

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We really need someone to write up an outline describing the amount of money currently waisted/spent on marijuana law enforcement /imprisonment costs coupled with the amount of money that it provides organized crime vs the amount to be made by using it as a cash crop for law abiding farmers and the funds saved by not running around chasing and locking those folks up. America needs a new cash crop and weed is it.
Posted by FSR_Host on February 3, 2009 at 6:54 PM · Report this
Chris Hurst is a hack. Democrats in the 31st need to organize and fire this guy. How can this one man prevent something so important from even being discussed?

Does he actually believe any of the crap that comes out of his mouth? Give it a hearing, this is still a democracy right? Let the people come testify and tell you what we are really worried about.

I think some Democrats are worried that this could hurt their re-election campaigns. Well, they are right. Don't vote for Chris Hurst in the 31st. Anyone who isn't a co-sponsor on this bill deserves the boot.
Posted by Democrats Suck as much as Republicans on January 31, 2009 at 8:18 AM · Report this
Marijuana is Washington's sixth largest cash crop just behind cherries at about $350,000,000 per year revenue.

In 2000 Washington was number 28 in the union in marijuana cultivation, now it is in the top ten.

Pot is a major pillar in this state's economy, and prosperity.

Rep. Hurst thinks people will be unhappy. With so many hundreds of tons of marijuana being grown and consumed in this state, how many people does he think are happy with the current laws?

The people of this state have already amply demonstrated with their votes that they want new, reformed marijuana laws.

Like the DEA raids on medical marijuana providers and patients, Rep. Hurst isn't going to change anything or make marijuana go away, all they are doing is inflicting pain, and violence on lots of people.

When will Rep. Hurst respect what the people of this state have already voted for?

Posted by xenophon on January 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM · Report this
Ideally we could all grow our own,just like other produce.This is a great step forward,though, for millions of people persecuted for loving flowers.
Posted by triple G on January 29, 2009 at 12:53 PM · Report this
I just blazed some fluffy/sticky nugz in a two footer that rips pretty solid. This stuff was dankimus prime and had more red hairs than a David Caruso film. The second hit was a total cougher!
Posted by Bruce M. Danielowski on January 29, 2009 at 11:16 AM · Report this
I don't have a boat to go out on...

I promise I'll keep it at home!!
Posted by Busy Bee on January 29, 2009 at 8:43 AM · Report this
I wanna see The Stranger really take this on, maybe with pieces directly addressing Hurst's 'issues' with the bill. Show that he's in the pocket of the police guilds and the prison guards unions. We can't let this douchebag stand in the way of progress, god dammit.
Posted by NaFun on January 27, 2009 at 2:41 PM · Report this
You dont save money with Washington state? You could tax crap and toilet flushes and guess what?

the fuckers would be crying for more money as they are right fucking now?

you think your going to save Washington money?

Even if you did they would spend it on what?

to think we could be paying for the monorail right now.

Pot should only be illegal for politypiggys to smoke.

Its 2009! and they are broke?

what part of they are broke from 2009 since jesus was wearing sears tough skin jeans?
Posted by Slade on January 27, 2009 at 6:14 AM · Report this
me too
Posted by mamsmoketoomuch on January 27, 2009 at 4:21 AM · Report this
I want to get highhhhh, soooo highhhh.
Posted by sir smokealot on January 27, 2009 at 4:12 AM · Report this
The real roadblock is the dofuss in the 31st District, Chris Hurst. The California comparison won't affect him; he knows better than we or them Californians!
Posted by Ballard Pimp on January 26, 2009 at 5:43 PM · Report this
I think the decriminalization of marijuana is a topic that is finally being talked about in a serious light and that's good news. Of course it's probably going to be a couple years before we see some real results, but I am optimistic about what the future holds.
Posted by dkirkland on January 26, 2009 at 12:23 PM · Report this
that is exactly what they want you to do - a voter intiative. they are too chicken to do any meaningful legislation in olympia that they perceive would jeopardize their chance at reelection ("soft on crime") so they want people to waste millions of dollars instead on a voter initiative. everyone needs to contact chris hurst and the other committee members and convince them to have a hearing, and convince your legislator to sign on to the bill. we elected these people, and pay them $45k/year, to be leaders and make these decisions that are common sense - we need to hold them to their jobs and not let them punt it to a voter initiative when something makes them uncomfortable.
Posted by westseattlered on January 26, 2009 at 11:12 AM · Report this
Maybe we should just start an initiative and just legalize it in our state. If they want to ignore the will of the people we will just write the law ourselves.
Posted by Rob on January 26, 2009 at 1:08 AM · Report this
Legalize and tax it!
Posted by WaveJunkie on January 25, 2009 at 6:34 PM · Report this
Dave Upthegrove's proposed legislation is HB1177.
I have written to Christopher Hurst. I am hoping you all will do the same.
Posted by jukk0u on January 25, 2009 at 5:51 PM · Report this
It would be of considerable help were you to post the title and number of the bill cited, if a number has been assigned. Thanks!
Posted by jukk0u on January 25, 2009 at 5:41 PM · Report this
comments here are fine; but has everybody written to Christopher Hurst and their own district's representatives and senators?
Posted by jukk0u on January 25, 2009 at 5:36 PM · Report this
Here is a flick that should be watched by everyone that has an opinion on this subject.

award winning movie
Posted by joe on January 25, 2009 at 1:36 PM · Report this
EVERY person who posts here should lobby their reps to sign on to this bill - Jamie Petersen is there - then, even if it dies there is some serious nature to it ...

Sign on, not just support ... lobby them, hard.
Posted by Aaron on January 24, 2009 at 4:39 PM · Report this
I'm enjoying a big fat joint right now! Being high is so relaxing. I also own a legit business that provides jobs for over 100 people. Just imagine the business and jobs I could provide givin the oppertunity to produce a legit Marijuana product. I'll be waiting.
Posted by Clint on January 24, 2009 at 9:18 AM · Report this
I will never understand why there is such a big deal over a plant. Putting non violent "criminals" in jail over 2 grams of plant material only created jaded individuals who will end up hating the state even more. Not to mention that the only thing jail does is teach people how to be better criminals. So lets spend more of the money we dont have and put more of our peaceful citizens in jail and make them pay a fine that is a mere fraction of what we will spend jailing them....
Posted by RainCityRadio on January 24, 2009 at 8:33 AM · Report this
Saving state dollars might just be the right strategy at the moment plus public smarts which agree with smaller sanctions

Too bad the ACLU and the pot people are not good at the lobbying end

No republicans and no conservatives doom the bill

But, the issue brings members to the ACLU .... so for them, they win something
Posted by Aaron on January 23, 2009 at 8:26 PM · Report this
What a lame Repug excuse for blocking that directly contradicts their own so-called philosophy of everyone's "personal responsibility." They are so gun shy about "blame" now, they are really getting even more irrational to keep their ignorant agenda on track.

Not to menition the WA Federal District Attorney has already told the Border Patrol not to send him MJ cases that are small time, because he is not going to prosecute them. What about concern for the Medical MJ patients who get busted by the Feds while they are IN the state?

No lame excuses anymore. Kohl-Welles is my District State Senator, and on this one, she has my support.
Posted by Michael J on January 23, 2009 at 7:30 PM · Report this
Hmm... less non-violent offenders in the system, saving the state money while freeing up more space for violent offenders? Why isn't this a no-brainer?
Posted by SeattleMama on January 23, 2009 at 6:46 PM · Report this
@ Erika T.) The breakdown is in a Slog post:…
Posted by Dominic Holden on January 23, 2009 at 5:58 PM · Report this
"According to data from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the state would save $7.5 million a year by passing the law—a figure that's based on the 11,553 pot-possession arrests in Washington in 2007."

Is the $7.5 million based on court costs, the actual sentences dolled out, some averaging of the sentences, a combination of those things or something completely different? I don't like unexplained numbers, so many faulty assumptions can hide within them.

In this case, 7.5 million divided by 11,553 would mean that an average of $650 was spent on each arrest. That seems a little low to me.
Posted by Erica T. on January 23, 2009 at 5:43 PM · Report this
Me and Will, we're on the same wavelength. ;-) Two comments at the same time about same thing.
Posted by thomas on January 23, 2009 at 4:08 PM · Report this
"...if they go out on their boat [and are arrested by the Coast Guard], they are not going to be happy with us."

People (voters) aren't that dumb. We understand that state laws might be in conflict with Federal law that we may choose to violate, and that many other states and their citizens are in that situation.

It's a critical aspect of democracy that citizens value the differences between states encoded in state-level laws, *especially* when those may be in conflict with monolithic Federal law. "States legislatures are the laboratories of democracy" and all that.
Posted by Thomas on January 23, 2009 at 4:07 PM · Report this
So the argument against decriminalization is that Washington state residents "won't be happy" if they end up getting harassed by federal agents?!? Is this guy serious? Is this guy seriously a legislator?? What a joke.

We already are "not happy" with the current marijuana criminalization and we would be much happier to take our chances with the coast guard! If the state legislature is really so concerned about our sensitive feelings, then I dare them to let us vote on this issue!
Posted by Will on January 23, 2009 at 3:46 PM · Report this
Imagine how much revenue one would get from taxing it.
Posted by Craig on January 23, 2009 at 3:21 PM · Report this
Fucking Republicans.
Posted by Aaron on January 23, 2009 at 3:03 PM · Report this
Please excuse the bad pun, but it's high time that Washington at least decriminalize possession. We are short on money as it is, lets stop wasting money on people not hurting anyone and go after what really matters.
Posted by handyoly81 on January 23, 2009 at 3:02 PM · Report this

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