OLYMPIA—This week lawmakers will consider big changes to Washington Marijuana laws. Bills in the House and Senate would downgrade possession from a criminal violation to a civil infraction. That means getting a ticket instead of jail time.
Rep. Brendan Williams is sponsoring House Bill 1177 "it would decriminalize the possession of up to 40 grams." "You would still pay a civil fine, if you were caught; it's just making not so much of a priority for law enforcement" Williams added.
Marijuana possession would still be a crime for those under 18, but many believe decriminalization would free up police to focus on more serious crimes. It also has the potential to save a huge amount of money.
The American Civil Liberties Union is among those supporting the legislation. ACLU Drug Policy Director Alison Holcomb says "the state of Washington would save $16 million in court costs, prosecution costs and public defense costs." Holcomb also believes "it addresses the disproportionate treatment of African-American people that we see in Washington State."
But not everyone agrees; Attorney General Rob McKenna doesn't support making it available without a prescription. Last month he told reporters "I think it makes it harder for us to make the case for other illegal substances." He also worries it will trigger an increase in use "and given the potency of marijuana, I don't think that's a good thing, personally."
Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles is sponsoring the senate bill and disagrees with McKenna's assessment. "I don't buy that there's been nothing to show that that's been the case in the over two dozen states that enacted the policy into law over the last three decades."
Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn, has made it clear he wants less focus on marijuana enforcement. "It's a low priority and it's not a good use of resources" McGinn said shortly after he took the oath of office.
There is another bill in the legislature that would legalize and regulate marijuana, but many say that may be too much, too soon. "I don't think we want to move so far that the public becomes uncomfortable, let's try decriminalization and see how that works" Williams said.
Kohl-Welles says she supports legalization "I think eventually, yes, we should have full legalization but I don't think our state is ready for that, yet."
The ACLU is hosting a forum for these lawmakers and the public to talk about the current legislation and the future. The forum is set for Tuesday, January 12th at the Capitol Theater in Olympia.