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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2011 at 2:54 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Legalizing cannabis: High time for a sober discussion about marijuana

Editorial Page Editor Ryan Blethen writes about why The Seattle Times favors legalizing cannabis.

Times editorial page editor

The marijuana debate

JOIN Times opinion writers at noon Thursday for an online chat about whether Washington state should enact House Bill 1550, which would legalize marijuana. Moderated by Ryan Blethen, the chat will include both proponents and opponents. www.seattletimes.com

It is rare we publish an editorial on a hot topic and receive near universal praise. But that is what happened last week when we came out in support of Washington state legalizing cannabis.

The fact that a lot of people support the drug being legal is not surprising. Most people I know have long supported legalization of marijuana.

Knowing people who support it and public opinion about a newspaper supporting it are different things.

When people take the time to e-mail or call me about an editorial, it is usually because they do not agree with the editorial page. This editorial was different. The compliments rolled in, the discussion in the comments section of the editorial is nearing 600 and is interesting and thoughtful — which is not always the case — and so far the editorial has been recommended by about 3,000 people on Facebook.

Those numbers are nice to see, but only a minor part of the story. What the editorial has shown is that a broad cross-section of Washingtonians supports legalizing cannabis, or at least are ready to discuss the issue seriously.

Legalizing would put Washington out in front. We would be the first state to make the drug legal and regulate it. This would put us at odds with federal law — something we considered. Through our internal discussions this opposition to federal law became a point in favor of endorsing legalization. We believe it is the right thing to do, so why not lead the county?

The possibility of a positive response is not why we voiced our support for Seattle Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson's bill to legalize cannabis. Any decent editorial page is going to take unpopular stands or endorse politicians or issues that rile readership. I still hear from readers fuming about The Seattle Times' endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. (I was not here then but am certain the editorial board was not smoking anything.)

How did we get to the point of supporting the legalization of a drug? Like any big decision or change of opinion, it was a process. This process started more than a year ago when I brought the issue up with the publisher. He was intrigued, but clearly not comfortable with the idea.

My argument was that the war against marijuana was a loser. It is a drain on law-enforcement resources and precious government funds. I also pointed out that by legalizing cannabis it cuts off a major source of funds for cartels and gangs.

From there we set about researching the topic. Some on the editorial board had worries about it being a gateway drug and about the effects on children. My counter was that if a teenager really wants pot, he or she is going to find a way to get it regardless of its legality. Just like alcohol. By regulating cannabis, it removes those under 18 from the presence of drug dealers, who, because it is their business, often have other kinds of drugs they can push on their young customers.

Another factor that played heavily in the decision is the outsize punishments for relatively small amounts of marijuana.

Enter Dickerson's bill. It dovetailed nicely with our yearlong internal examination of the issue. The publisher was comfortable with the decision so I gave editorial writer Bruce Ramsey the green light.

As far as I can tell, The Times is one of the few metropolitan newspapers to push for legal cannabis. That does not mean we are alone. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has a piece below about regulating illicit drugs. Stamper is not a lone voice in law enforcement believing that the dollars spent in the futile effort to eradicate drugs would be better used for treatment.

It is high time this country had a sober discussion about marijuana. Because what we are doing now is not working. Washington state's Legislature could lead the discussion by passing Dickerson's bill.

Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: rblethen@seattletimes.com

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