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Originally published January 13, 2010 at 5:42 PM | Page modified January 13, 2010 at 7:16 PM

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Marijuana advocates want changes in WA drug laws

Marijuana advocates packed a public hearing Wednesday calling for changes to Washington state's drug laws.

Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. —

Marijuana advocates packed a public hearing Wednesday calling for changes to Washington state's drug laws.

Lawmakers are considering two bills. One would legalize marijuana for those 21 and older, and regulate it like alcohol. Another would decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot for adults.

Proponents argued that the current laws on marijuana are as ineffective as the Prohibition-era laws on alcohol.

"We have not deterred the use of marijuana, nor have we seen a noticeable impact on the availability of marijuana," Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson told the House Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Committee. "Over the last decade, we have wasted scores of taxpayer dollars on investigation, court proceedings and incarceration."

Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat, is sponsoring the legalization bill.

Opponents said any loosening up of the laws would be harmful to children.

"If you believe that it is OK for kids in school to use marijuana and be high, then you should pass either one or both of these," said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Under Dickerson's bill, marijuana would be sold in Washington state's 160 state-run liquor stores, and customers, 21 and older, would pay a tax of 15 percent per gram. The measure would dedicate most of the money raised for substance abuse prevention and treatment, which is facing potential cuts in the state budget as lawmakers seek to patch a $2.6 billion hole. Dickerson said the measure could eventually bring in as much to state coffers as alcohol does, more than $300 million a year.

"Marijuana prohibition is wrong, destructive and a waste of taxpayer dollars," said Mary McDermott, who drove to the hearing from Renton.

Not all marijuana advocates agreed, however, that the current bills were the best way to change state law.

Lee Newbury, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he wants to see marijuana legalized in the state but has an issue with the proposal that it be sold in state liquor stores.

"I don't really want to associate alcohol and marijuana together," he said. "I think that's a poor choice of judgment."

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The committee will take no action on the bills until next week.

Washington is one of four states where legalization bills have been introduced. California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are also weighing measures. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but guidelines on federal prosecution of medical marijuana have loosened under the Obama administration.

On Monday, activists in Washington state filed a ballot initiative that would legalize all adult marijuana possession, manufacturing and sales.

Ric Smith, with Sensible Washington, which filed the initiative, asked lawmakers to table their bills and let the voters decide.

"We're going to take it out of your hands," he said. "Just wait for our initiative. It will take care of everything."

If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, it will ask voters to 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 illegal.

Supporters must gather more than 240,000 signatures by July 2 to qualify for the November ballot.

The decriminalization bill, sponsored by Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, would reclassify adult possession of marijuana from a crime with jail time to a civil infraction with a $100 penalty.

Arnold Byron of Law Enforcement against Prohibition said the downside of decriminalizing instead of legalizing is that "a user will have to purchase marijuana from a person we designate as a criminal."

Fourteen states, including Washington, already have medical marijuana laws, and 13 have decriminalization laws on the books. About two dozen cities across the country, including Seattle, make marijuana offenses a low law-enforcement priority.

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The marijuana legalization measure is House Bill 2401. The decriminalization bill is House Bill 1177.

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On the Net:

Washington state Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws: http://norml.org

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: http://www.leap.cc/cms/index.php

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