Drug Law

Washington State Lawmakers Vote Down Marijuana Bills

| by NORML

By Paul Armentano

They say that the will of politicians often lags behind the sentiment of the public. Nowhere is this adage more clear than when it comes to marijuana law reform.

It was business as usual today in Olympia, as lawmakers on the House Committee on Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness voted down a pair of bills aimed at reforming the state’s failed criminal marijuana laws.

House Bill 2401 sought to regulate the adult production, use, and distribution of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. Here was the roll call vote:

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Hurst (D) Chair — N
O’Brien (D) Vice Chair — N
Pearson (R) — N
Klippert (R) — N
Appleton (D) — Y
Goodman (D) — Y
Kirby (D) — N
Ross (R) — N

House Bill 1177 was much more limited in scope, seeking simply to reclassify minor marijuana possession offenses from a criminal misdemeanor to a fine-only civil infraction. (Note, its Senate companion bill, SB 5615, awaits floor action in the Senate.) This change, known as decriminalization, is already the law in over a dozen states.

Here was the roll call vote:

Hurst (D) Chair — N
O’Brien (D) Vice Chair — Y
Pearson (R) — N
Klippert (R) — N
Appleton (D) — Y
Goodman (D) — Y
Kirby (D) — N

The legislative defeats came despite nearly two hours of public testimony, nearly all of which was in support of one or both reform proposals.

So what reasons did lawmakers give for voting ‘no’ on these reforms? Here’s just a few excuses.

Committee Chair, democrat Christopher Hurst alleged that as a state lawmakers he is sworn to uphold both state and federal law, and claimed that both proposals would be in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act. (For the record, neighboring Oregon first decriminalized marijuana possession offenses in 1973 and has never run afoul of federal law. Likewise, New Mexico’s government has licensed the production and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes without incident.)

Republican Brad Klippert stated, “As a law enforcement officer … on countless occasions I’ve seen the negative effects of marijuana on people’s lives.” (By that logic I suppose that the Representative would also vote to criminally prohibit alcohol, tobacco, and fatty foods.)

Fellow Republican Kirk Pearson claimed that just by lawmakers talking about the bills they were encouraging teens to try marijuana. (”I don’t want to do anything today that would make drug use seem safer to teenagers,” he said, even though by his own logic he was better off keeping his mouth shut.)

Finally, Democrat Rep. Steve Kirby alleged that he supported the reforms, in theory, but then inexplicably said that such changes in policy “require a vote of the public,” not action by the legislature. (Um, was marijuana prohibition enacted by a vote of the public?) Ultimately, however, Rep. Kirby may get his wish, as NORML Legal Committee member Douglas Hiatt has filed a petition to put the marijuana legalization issue on the November 2010 state ballot, and a recent statewide poll shows that if the election was held today it would win.

In the end, however, Democrat Rep. Roger Goodman stood as the minority voice of reason when he told his colleagues: “A ‘no’ vote … is a vote for prohibition and the illegal markets that it spawns. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for control. … A ‘no’ is a vote for continued chaos.”

It’s a lesson that the public has already learned — even if a majority of their elected officials have not. Perhaps now is the time to teach them.