A recent front-page headline in the Seattle Times reported, “More are asking: Is it time to legalize pot?” In our state, the ACLU-WA is playing an important role in moving along this growing debate. Several hundred people thronged Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theatre and the Kirkland Performing Arts Center for showings of the ACLU-WA’s award-winning video “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation.” Forums following the screenings featured travel writer Rick Steves, who earned an EMMY nomination for his role as host of the video. As further indication of the burgeoning interest in reform, nearly 50,000 people have viewed the video via Comcast OnDemand and You Tube, and the companion website, marijuanaconversation.org, has drawn an amazing 375,000 hits.
Fueling the movement for reform is a widespread understanding that our current drug policies simply don’t work. In March 2009, the ACLU-WA released a study we commissioned on the effects of marijuana laws. University of Washington researchers Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert found that laws criminalizing marijuana are not achieving their goals. Arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating, and seizing the property of people who commit marijuana-related offenses doesn’t reduce use. And lessening or removing penalties doesn’t increase it. But it does consume a large chunk of government budgets.
Laws for simply possessing pot have harsh personal consequences, including jail time and fines; possible loss of employment, housing, and financial aid for college; and the stigma of a conviction. To remedy this, the ACLU-WA championed a bill in the 2009 legislature that would reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor carrying mandatory jail time to a civil infraction imposing a $100 penalty than can be paid by mail. The state’s Office of Financial Management found that its passage would save our cash-strapped governments $16 million and generate $1 million more in new revenue each year.
The measure was voted out of committee in the Senate with a bipartisan “do pass” recommendation but failed to come to a vote on the floor. We’ll be pressing for its enactment in the 2010 legislature.