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Originally published Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 9:04 PM

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King County sheriff makes case for pot

Legalizing marijuana will be better for the kids, he said.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It's startling enough that the King County Sheriff — not a retired cop, but the current sheriff — came out this week for legalizing pot.

But then there was the sheriff's reasoning. Part of it was even more unusual.

Legalizing marijuana will be better for the kids, he said.

Say what? This has got to mark some sort of psychological tipping point in the 40-year-long, mostly failed war on drugs.

Most all my life, back to when I was in high school during the "Just Say No" era, the bedrock rationale for keeping pot illegal was: It's for the kids. Even when people acknowledge it makes little sense for cops to root out and arrest adults for smoking pot, they often stumble over how an end to prohibition might affect the kids.

You don't want your kids to become stoners, do you? No. That has always been case closed in this debate.

But Steve Strachan, who was appointed sheriff this year and now is running to be elected to that job, on Monday turned that argument on its head.

Strachan, who is also the former Kent police chief, used to work in schools, including teaching the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) classes that were everywhere in the 1980s and '90s.

For all the warnings to kids about how marijuana is as illegal and harmful as, say, heroin, the end result is that more kids smoke pot today than smoke cigarettes. And find pot easier to get than alcohol.

"With alcohol being highly regulated, we're able to have a more reasonable discussion about it, in societies and in our families," Strachan told The Seattle Times' Jonathan Martin, in announcing his support for the pot-legalization Initiative 502 on this fall's ballot.

With pot, "people are sort of winking at it," he said. "It lives in this kind of limbo — it's illegal, but also not." So we have created an "ambiguous, confusing message we're sending to our kids."

Strachan's point is that society ultimately has a choice. Go all in with police-enforced prohibition, which so far hasn't worked well (though some drug warriors argue we never went all in with it in the first place). Or try what we do with cigarettes and alcohol. Legalize them, but also heavily tax and regulate them — including the enforcement of age restrictions.

Take cigarettes. Teen smoking in Washington state has dropped by about half since the 1990s, though cigarettes remain legal as ever for adults.

But that date roughly corresponds to the time we began taxing them to oblivion. As well as portraying cigarettes as death sticks, and smokers as modern-day lepers.

The initiative only makes pot legal if you're 21 or older. But I bet this question of how the proposed law may affect kids will decide the election. Those arguing to keep pot illegal certainly think so, as they keep bringing it up. Recently, a former adviser to White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske summed up the pot measure like this:

"The bottom line is, if you care about young people succeeding in education and later in life in your state, then you don't want to legalize marijuana."

As a Dad, I have to admit that statement fills me with doubt about what we should do.

But as a former teenager, I can vouch that it matters less whether something is technically illegal than a) how much it costs and b) whether it's easy to score. As it is, we leave those decisions mostly up to the drug dealers.

Strachan's announcement means both candidates for King County sheriff now support legalizing pot. The other is John Urquhart, a former spokesman for the department who was also once a narcotics detective.

Core to their reasoning — and to Initiative 502 — is that in this case, the government's taxing and regulating powers may be far more potent than its police powers.

It's not often you'll hear that coming from the cops.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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