OLYMPIA -- An initiative seeking to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana will be decided by voters, Washington lawmakers said Thursday.
If passed, Initiative 502 would make Washington the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It would place the state at odds with federal law, which bans marijuana use of all kinds.
And already, law enforcement officials are concerned.
Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin told the Herald that legalizing marijuana will lead to more DUI arrests and require officers to get more time-consuming and expensive training.
Officers deal with marijuana-related crimes on a daily basis, he said. And when a driver is suspected of being under the influence of marijuana, a specially trained officer must be called in to identify those over the legal limit of THC -- the active chemical in cannabis.
Currently, Kennewick has just one drug recognition expert, but other law enforcement agencies, including the Washington State Patrol, also have some, Lattin said.
Initiative 502 was certified by the Secretary of State's Office last month after pro-legalization campaigners turned in more than the 241,153 necessary valid signatures.
The measure would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and impose a 25 percent excise tax at each stage. People ages 21 and older could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana, one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies, or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the House State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee that considered the initiative, said the Legislature would not act on it, meaning it will instead automatically appear on the November ballot.
Speaking at a joint House and Senate work session Thursday, backers of the measure said it would allow the state to regulate marijuana use, raise tax revenues and squeeze the powerful drug cartels controlling the black market.
"Locking people up and putting handcuffs on them is not the way to resolve our society's issues with regard to marijuana," said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Seattle who has become an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization.
Opponents said legalization likely would increase marijuana use by teenagers, and they questioned whether criminal gangs would be seriously impacted.
"There is a thriving industry in place," said Steve Freng, a federal official helping coordinate Washington's drug prevention and treatment efforts. "It's silly to think the cartels will simply pack up and leave the state with their tails between their legs."
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza argued it would be better to instead pressure the federal government to change marijuana's designation from a Schedule One to a Schedule Two drug, meaning it would still be classified as having a high potential for abuse but would also be recognized as having legitimate medical uses.
"If we start with the pharmaceutical end and move forward from there, I think what a great start we've already done," Snaza said.
Some medical marijuana advocates oppose the initiative because it would place a limit on motorists' TCH levels --5 nanograms per milliliter of blood -- that they say doesn't accurately measure impairment.
Activists in a handful of other states, including California, Oregon and Montana, are attempting to get the legalization of recreational marijuana use on the ballot, though none has yet secured the necessary signatures.
Washington is among 16 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized the medical use of marijuana.
w Eric Francavilla, a Herald intern from Washington State University, contributed to this report.