Guest Commentary | Washington State should legalize or decriminalize possession of marijuana

By Toby Nixon

Last Wednesday in Olympia, the state House Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness held hearings on two bills regarding marijuana policy reform. These bills, HB 1177 (decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana) and HB 2401 (legalization of marijuana and sale in state liquor stores) will be voted on in the committee this Wednesday, January 20.

Article 1 Section 32 of our state constitution says “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual right and the perpetuity of free government.” It’s time we went back to fundamental principles and considered whether our government is focusing on the right things.

Both the Declaration of Independence and Article 1 Section 1 of our state constitution say that the purpose of government is to protect and maintain individual rights. The government should only interfere in individual choices and make something a crime if, in fact, somebody else’s life, liberty, or property is being infringed upon.

Possessing marijuana does not infringe upon or endanger anyone’s life, liberty, or property. Possession by adults should not be a crime. And yet, in 2007 alone, the estimated total cost of arresting over 11,000 people for marijuana possession, convicting over 3,600 of them, and paying for over 16,000 days in jail, was over seven and a half million dollars. But that alone does not explain the whole cost.

You must also consider the opportunity cost. Whenever a police officer is taking time to arrest, transport, and do the hours of paperwork on someone for marijuana possession, they are not available to be apprehending real criminals or preventing real crimes. Our police officers should be focusing on domestic violence, on pedophiles, car thieves, burglars, robbers, and all the other criminals whose acts truly are crimes against other persons, who are truly infringing the rights of others.

Think also of the costs to those who are arrested and convicted. They haven’t infringed anyone else’s rights, but for the rest of their lives they will have trouble getting jobs, trouble getting housing, trouble getting financial aid for college. They are unlikely to reach their full potential, and much more likely to be a burden on society in the long run.

Reclassifying marijuana possession as a civil infraction, or legalizing it altogether, would mean greatly reduced costs and safer communities. Supporting HB 1177 or HB 2401 would not make one “soft on crime”, because it would make more resources available to deal with real criminals.

None of us wants to encourage drug abuse. But there are more efficient, fair, and proportionate ways to discourage marijuana use than continuing to have it be a crime. Our experience with tobacco makes that clear.

The legislature should legalize or decriminalize possession of marijuana for adults. My preference would be to treat marijuana as we do beer and wine – to go beyond what is proposed in HB 2401 and permit private sales by licensed retailers rather than restricting sales to state-run stores – and to treat driving under the influence very harshly. But either HB 2401 or HB 1177 would be an improvement on our current regulatory regime which perpetuates a deadly black market.

Toby Nixon served as state representative for the 45th District from 2002-2007, representing parts of Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville, Duvall, Carnation, and Sammamish.