It’s time to overhaul nation’s marijuana laws, Edmonds panelists agree

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Edmonds travel writer Rick Steves was clearly prepared for the tough questions regarding U.S. marijuana laws at Monday night’s “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation” forum, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and drew about 500 people to the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

Yes, Steves said, he has had customers tell him they will boycott his travel business because he supports the reform of marijuana laws: “I thought to myself, ‘Europe will be more fun without you.’ No, he would never smoke pot in front of his teen-age children, although his kids have tried marijuana as college students “and they don’t think it’s very interesting.” Yes, his position on marijuana use has been influenced by his extensive travels throughout Europe, where pot smoking is no big deal.

All of the speakers at the forum, from former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington John McKay to State Rep. Mary Helen Roberts to former Nixon Administration domestic policy adviser Bud Krogh, agreed with Steves that it’s time to overhaul the nation’s marijuana laws.

McKay, a Republican who became a national figure in 2006 after he was fired along with seven other U.S. attorneys during the George W. Bush Administration and now teaches law at Seattle University, said he would favor a change in U.S. drug policy to regulate marijuana like alcohol. “I think we should highly tax it and regulate it and let somebody else besides the drug cartels make money on it,” McKay said.

Current marijuana policies, including the state’s recently passed citizens initiative allowing medical use of marijuana, put both law enforcement officers and the public in a difficult spot, McKay said. No matter what states do, the federal government says that marijuana possession is illegal and you can be arrested for having any amount on your person. The passage of medical marijuana laws hasn’t helped the matter, McKay noted, because they have been used as loophole, notably in the state of California, to obtain marijuana legally.

Lower British Columbia is home to a giant marijuana-growing operation that brings in about $5 billion a year, McKay said, and it’s believed that members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang that runs pot-smuggling operations from the Canadian border into the U.S. along Interstate 5 have invested their money in B.C. real estate, purchasing an estimated 25,000 residences in the city of Vancouver, B.C.

“To successfully reform marijuana laws, officials must separate marijuana use from other drugs,” McKay said. “Leaders are afraid to have an open conversation [on marijuana] because when they run for election, someone will run a 30-second sound bite that says they are soft on drugs.”

Elected officials’ fear of being associated with marijuana reform is real, agreed State Rep. Roberts (D-Lynnwood) and it’s probably why House Bill 1177, which she sponsored during the last legislative session, didn’t even get a hearing. The bill would make adult possession of up to 40 grams — which is less than 1.5 ounces — of marijuana an infraction rather than a misdemeanor, with a $100 fine, and all proceeds would go into the state’s health care fund. Roberts said she will work to move the bill again during the 2010 session but has been told privately by fellow lawmakers that it may not be addressed during a major election year.

All speakers agreed that no matter what laws are passed by individual states, the issue must be resolved at the federal level. Krogh, former White House Deputy for Domestic Affairs in the Nixon Administration, said that changes may be coming with President Obama’s appointment of former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Krogh said that Kerlikowske, who was an outspoken critic of marijuana laws while serving as Seattle’s police chief, has pledged to move away from country’s current focus on the drug war’s “supply side” (i.e., breaking up Mexican drug cartels and arresting and imprisoning drug dealers) to “demand side” — approaches like treatment aimed at reducing drug use and addiction.

What gets lost in the discussion about marijuana laws is the history of marijuana regulation in the U.S., and that was explained during a short ACLU-sponsored video shown prior to the panel discussion. In the late 1800s, marijuana was known as hemp or cannabis, and was prescribed by American doctors and sold in U.S. pharmacies. Over time, the drug became associated with Mexican immigrants and their slang name for the plant, and often was the subject of racially charged accusations regarding the drug’s side effects. In fact, when U.S. prohibition against alcohol ended in 1933, the federal official originally in charge of enforcing those efforts — Harry Anslinger — shifted his priorities to making marijuana illegal.

In 1972, the Shafer Commission, which had been appointed by then-President Nixon to study marijuana, recommended that the drug be decriminalized, but Nixon didn’t like the findings and shelved the report.

During the years since, the federal government has invested a significant amount of money in marijuana law enforcement. American taxpayers spend an estimated $7.5 billion annually and the State of Washington spends $90 million annually, according to a booklet created to accompany the video, but it has not decreased either the supply — nor the demand for — marijuana.

“It’s timely now for us to look at the science and not just look at the politics,”  said Krogh, who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

Federal regulations have hampered research into the medical benefits of smoking marijuana to relieve a variety of serious ailments, including the side effects of chemotherapy, hepatitis C and HIV treatments, panelists said. And while marijuana has its own set of dangers and side effects, is less addictive than two commonly used legal drugs — alcohol and nicotine.

Which returns the conversation to Steves and his teenagers, and what many people seem to be most worried about when it comes to decriminalizing marijuana: Do we really need to legalize yet another drug and make its use that much more acceptable to our children?

“There is a case to be made that marijuana use won’t go up if education [of children] is part of the equation,” Steves said. In addition, Steves and other panelists noted it will be easier to enforce kids’ access to marijuana if it’s legal and regulated, noting that teens currently find it easier to buy pot on the street than to walk into a store and purchase a case of beer or a pack of cigarettes, since merchants can be cited for selling to minors.

Noting his own kids’ lack of interest in marijuana, Steves commented that “they are both really into alcohol.” When that statement was greeted by audience laughter, Steves added somberly that “alcohol abuse is the problem in colleges today.”

The bigger picture, Steves said, stems from his experience as an international traveler: “There has never been a country that has been drug-free,” he said. “People by their nature like to play around with recreational drugs.”

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