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Originally published Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 5:44 PM

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Marijuana legalization initiative set to go on Nov. ballot

A measure to create a state-licensed system for the sale of marijuana will be voted on in November after the Legislature declined to act on it.

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — An initiative seeking to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana will be decided by voters, state lawmakers said Thursday.

If passed, Initiative 502 would make Washington the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana. It would place the state at odds with federal law, which bans marijuana use of all kinds.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who chairs the House State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee that was considering the initiative, said the Legislature would not act on it, meaning it will instead automatically appear on the November ballot.

"We will have more opportunities on the campaign trail this year to discuss this issue," Hunt said.

Because the measure proposes new taxes on marijuana production and consumption, the Legislature would need a two-thirds majority to pass it.

The initiative was certified by the Secretary of State's office last month after pro-legalization campaigners turned in more than the 241,153 necessary valid signatures.

The measure would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and impose a 25 percent excise tax at each stage. People ages 21 and older could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana, one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies, or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids.

Speaking at a joint House and Senate work session Thursday, backers of the measure said it would allow the state to regulate marijuana use, raise tax revenues and squeeze the powerful drug cartels controlling the black market.

"Locking people up and putting handcuffs on them is not the way to resolve our society's issues with regard to marijuana," said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Seattle, who has become an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization.

Charles Mandigo, the former head of the Seattle FBI office, also spoke in favor of the measure.

"It is the money, not the drugs, that drive these criminal organizations and street gangs," Mandigo said. "Take away the money and you take away the criminal element."

McKay and Mandigo conceded that getting criminals out of the marijuana business would take time.

Opponents said legalization would likely increase marijuana use by teenagers, and they questioned whether criminal gangs would be seriously impacted.

"There is a thriving industry in place," said Steve Freng, a federal official helping coordinate Washington state's drug-prevention and treatment efforts. "It's silly to think the cartels will simply pack up and leave the state with their tails between their legs."

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza argued that it would be better to instead pressure the federal government to change marijuana's designation from a Schedule One to a Schedule Two drug, meaning it would still be classified as having a high potential for abuse but would also be recognized as having legitimate medical uses.

"If we start with the pharmaceutical end and move forward from there, I think what a great start we've already done," Snaza said.

Some medical-marijuana advocates oppose the initiative because it would place a limit on motorists' TCH levels — 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood — that they say doesn't accurately measure impairment. THC is the active ingredient of cannabis.

Such concerns are overblown, said Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane County's former top public-health official, who favors the initiative.

"In order to be stopped for impaired driving you have to show impairment," she said. "This is not a concern for medical-marijuana users and has been kind of a red herring that has been raised."

Activists in a handful of other states, including California, Oregon and Montana, are attempting to get the legalization of recreational marijuana use on the ballot, though none has yet secured the necessary signatures.

Colorado legalization activists were about 2,500 signatures shy of getting an initiative on that state's ballot as of last week. Their deadline is Feb. 15.

Washington is among 16 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized the medical use of marijuana.

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