Three representatives introduced a bill in the state house this morning that would reduce the penalty for marijuana possession to a mere $100 fine. [Update: Nine additional co-sponsors have signed on.] Under current law, possessing as little as one joint is punishable by up to 90 days in jail. In Washington last year, 11,553 people were arrested on marijuana possession charges.
But can it pass?
This year seems an especially unlikely time for legislators to embrace liberal civil-liberty-lovin’ bills, considering the priority of bridging Washington's $6 billion budget gap. But the financial crunch may prove a paradoxical windfall. Sponsors and advocates behind the bill intend to capitalize on the bill’s savings.
Representative Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia), one of the bills co-sponsors, says he plans to “frame it in terms of the tradeoff in the budget discussion … and set a square alternative. He says conservative legislators could be attracted to the cost-saving argument for decriminalization more than ever. “Do you choose to provide health care for x number of children or fund criminalizing marijuana possession?” he asks. For example, Williams cites a cost analysis of pot busts taken from Washington State Institute for Public Policy data that shows, based on the number of arrests in 2007, Washington would save $7.5 million by passing the law.
Although the bill may seem too controversial to pass this year, Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington’s Drug Policy Project, says public opinion is on the bill’s side. A recent poll shows 81 percent of Washington voters believe pot laws aren’t working. “I think that the bill is an improvement Washington voters are ready to see,” she says. Massachusetts voters passed a nearly identical measure in November by a 30-point margin—and the lack of pot-induced hysteria in Massachusetts may provide evidence that the hackneyed reefer-madness claims about marijuana reforms are unfounded.
The bill would apply to adults in possession of 40 grams or less of pot; penalties for minors would remain unchanged.
Nonetheless, the bill is a lefty longshot, Williams acknowledges. “Cal Anderson used to be a voice in the wilderness on gay civil-rights issues," he says. "You just keep plugging away and people start thinking in terms of the change."
The bill's prime sponsor is representative Dave Upthegrove (D-33, south King County). State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Queen Anne) says she will introduce a mirror bill in the state senate within a week.