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Originally published Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:43 PM

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Guest columnist

Time to answer concerns to advance marijuana policy reform

Supporters of Initiative 1068, which would have eliminated penalties for marijuana possesssion, cultivation and sale, failed to make the Washington state ballot. Guest columnist Roger Roffman suggests its time to have a conversation about the marijuana policy reform that answers concerns of police chiefs, prosecutors, medical societies, educators and parents.

Special to The Times

It's 0-3 this year for removing criminal penalties for possessing or selling marijuana for non-medical purposes.

In the last session, the Washington state Legislature killed a bill to legalize marijuana. Another bill to reclassify possession as a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor achieved a "do pass" recommendation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but then died in the Rules Committee. Finally, Initiative 1068 — which would have eliminated state penalties for marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale — failed to get enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

You'd think that getting a liberal marijuana law passed in this state would be a slam dunk. After all, in 2003 Seattle voters approved Initiative 75 which called for small-scale marijuana possession by adults to be Seattle's lowest law enforcement priority. More recently, the City Attorney has stopped prosecuting marijuana possession cases and Mayor Mike McGinn has called for marijuana legalization.

It's been nearly 40 years since the members of a presidential commission called for decriminalizing marijuana possession. The commission members believed that draconian penalties caused more harm than good by promoting public distrust for government-issued health information about drugs. They recommended an alternative: discourage marijuana use, but with a penalty that better fits the offense than a jail term or a life-long criminal record.

The state Legislature came closest to adopting the federal commission's recommendation in 1977. House Bill 257 passed in the House after receiving support from the police chiefs of Seattle and five other cities. The prosecuting attorneys of four counties endorsed the bill as did the King County Medical Society. The Seattle Times and other newspapers across the state called for the bill's passage. A state-funded poll found that a majority favored either a small fine or no penalty whatsoever for marijuana possession in small amounts.

HB 257 came close. Perhaps in the following session it might have succeeded. But, something else was happening across the country that derailed decriminalization. The head shop industry grew rapidly as did the publication of pro-pot magazines such as High Times. Increasing numbers of young people began trying marijuana. The public mood shifted.

In the late 1970s, the goal of protecting civil liberties by liberalizing marijuana laws was displaced by another goal: protecting children and adolescents. With the exception of marijuana's use for medical purposes, the marijuana policy reform movement that had grown dramatically in the 1970s was dead in the water.

Today, a new generation of policy activists is calling for a conversation about how we think about marijuana. Just as in 1972 when decriminalization was first recommended nationally, having this conversation is a good idea. Each year more than 800,000 people are charged with marijuana-possession offenses. Young people and people of color are disproportionately affected.

I believe, however, that we'll only see success in marijuana policy reform when those in the movement expand the goals they're trying to achieve. The objective needs to be more than protecting civil liberties. It must also include the goal of protecting those who are vulnerable.

I suspect that chiefs of police, prosecuting attorneys, medical societies, educators, and parents will once again join in supporting change in the marijuana possession laws if those reforms include a number of goals:

• Protecting adult civil liberties, • Effectively preventing marijuana's harms to children and adolescents,

• Acknowledging the reality of marijuana dependence and addressing its prevention and treatment,

• Proposing credible prevention of accidents because of driving while stoned, and

• Identifying specific health risks from pot use in vulnerable groups (for example, individuals with cardiovascular disease).

It's time for the conversation to bring all of these goals to the table.

Roger A. Roffman is professor emeritus, School of Social Work, University of Washington.

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