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Originally published June 22, 2011 at 9:38 PM | Page modified June 23, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Marijuana-initiative backers say state could lead change

Washington state would be defying federal drug laws if an initiative filed Wednesday with the Secretary of State to legalize and regulate marijuana is adopted.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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quotes "Why should anybody go buy state cannabis with a huge tax on it, when tax-free... Read more

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Washington state would be defying federal drug laws if an initiative filed Wednesday with the Secretary of State to legalize and regulate marijuana is adopted.

But backers said Wednesday that states can take the lead in ending what they call the nation's failed war on drugs, much as individual states, including Washington, repealed Prohibition before the federal government.

"If people at the state and other states in this country say we're ready to try a rational approach to marijuana laws, the federal government has to take notice," said campaign director Alison Holcomb, who is taking a leave from her job as drug policy director at ACLU Washington.

Several of the initiative's backers, including Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, travel guide Rick Steves and former Washington State Bar Association President Mark Johnson, held a news conference Wednesday at the Seattle Public Library to kick off the campaign.

The New Approach Washington initiative would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use, much as the state regulates alcohol.

Organizers say they hope to take advantage of their high-profile backers — who include former U.S. Attorney John McKay — and an aggressive fundraising campaign to collect the needed signatures.

The campaign will use paid signature gatherers, as well as volunteers, Holcomb said.

New Approach Washington will have until Dec. 30 to gather 241,153 signatures to put the issue before the Legislature. Lawmakers then could approve the measure or send it to voters.

Holcomb said polling showed about 53 percent of state voters favored legalizing and regulating marijuana.

Holmes said murders by Mexican drug cartels now number almost 38,000 and that 60 percent of drug-cartel profits come from marijuana sales in the U.S.

"We're complicit in those 38,000 murders. That's what prohibition has done," Holmes said.

Under the initiative, distribution to adults age 21 and up would be through state-licensed marijuana-only stores; production and distribution would be licensed and regulated by the state Liquor Control Board; and strict rules would be adopted for advertising, store location and license eligibility.

The law would limit personal possession to one ounce of dried bud. It would still be a crime to grow or deliver even a small amount of marijuana, except by licensed producers or stores.

Another initiative campaign — to remove all state criminal and civil penalties for marijuana use, possession and cultivation — is already under way.

Its chairman, Douglas Hiatt, criticized New Approach Washington for not seeking "meaningful reform."

His Sensible Washington campaign has collected only about 100,000 of the 241,153 signatures required. To qualify for the November ballot, signatures must be delivered to the Secretary of State by July 8.

No state has legalized marijuana for recreational use in such a way, although some have decriminalized it.

Taxes on the sales and distribution of marijuana would generate $215 million in state revenue per year, sponsors of the new initiative say, with roughly $40 million going to the state general fund and $175 million to drug education and public health.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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