The debate over marijuana legalization came to Kennewick on Friday as two panelists at a Columbia Basin Badger Club forum explored the issue from differing law enforcement points of view.
Washingtonians will vote Nov. 6 on Initiative 502, a ballot measure proposing to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.
The state already has a law allowing patients with certain conditions access to medical marijuana, but the initiative would go further and legalize limited quantities of marijuana for recreational use.
It also would create a tax system for the drug estimated to generate about $500 million annually for state coffers, according to materials provided by "Yes on I-502," the group promoting the initiative.
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Benton County Sheriff's Capt. Clay Vannoy told Badger Club members that while he believes the initiative is well-written, he has some concerns as a former member of the Tri-Cities Metro Drug Task Force.
Namely, Vannoy wonders how the initiative will be enforced and whether it in fact will bring in the promised revenue.
Initiative proponents have argued that legalizing marijuana possession will free up police officers to pursue other, more important crimes.
But Vannoy said he questions whether the initiative would have that effect.
He argued that people who use marijuana now are aware that it is illegal and are choosing to commit a crime when they use the drug.
He also said that the people getting arrested for marijuana possession often are the same people getting arrested for other types of crimes, and so he doesn't think the initiative will free up significant police time.
"I don't believe, in my experience, it's going to have a huge impact on criminals," Vannoy said. "I think the people who make a conscious choice to do illegal things will continue to make that choice."
Vannoy also said he believes a black market for the drug would continue to exist -- offering a more potent version than the initiative allows and likely at a lower price than would be asked by businesses that become licensed to sell marijuana if the initiative passes.
James Peet, a former police officer and National Park Service ranger, said he believes if given the choice between obtaining marijuana legally or risking prosecution by going to the black market to save a few dollars, many people would choose to buy the drug legally.
"They're going to do it anyhow -- this brings it into a legal realm and makes sure it is controlled," Peet said.
Peet also argued that regulating marijuana sales the same way that alcohol sales are regulated would result in fewer teens or children getting their hands on the drug.
The initiative would restrict marijuana sales to people 21 and over -- the same way alcohol sales are limited.
Peet does advocate prosecutions for people who drive while high on pot.
"If you're driving around stoned, you need to be taken off the road," he said.