Washington is one of four states where measures to legalize and regulate marijuana have been introduced, and about two dozen other states are considering bills ranging from medical marijuana to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the herb.
“In terms of state legislatures, this is far and away the most active year that we’ve ever seen,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which supports reforming marijuana laws.
Nadelmann said that while legalization efforts are not likely to get much traction in state capitals anytime soon, the fact that there is such an increase of activity “is elevating the level of public discourse on this issue and legitimizing it.”
“I would say that we are close to the tipping point,” he said. “At this point they are still seen as symbolic bills to get the conversation going, but at least the conversation can be a serious one.”
Opponents of relaxing marijuana laws aren’t happy with any conversation on the topic, other than keeping the drug illegal.
“There’s no upside to it in any manner other than for those people who want to smoke pot,” said Travis Kuykendall, head of the West Texas High Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area office in El Paso, Texas. “There’s nothing for society in it, there’s nothing good for the country in it, there’s nothing for the good of the economy in it.”
Legalization bills were introduced in California and Massachusetts earlier this year, and this month, New Hampshire and Washington state prefiled bills in advance of their legislative sessions that begin in January. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but guidelines have been loosened on federal prosecution of medical marijuana under the Obama administration.
Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat who is sponsoring the legalization bill in Washington state, said that she “wanted to start a strong conversation about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.”
Under her bill, marijuana would be sold in Washington state’s 160 state-run liquor stores, and customers, 21 and older, would pay a tax of 15 percent per gram. The measure would dedicate most of the money raised for substance abuse prevention and treatment, which is facing potential cuts in the state budget. Dickerson said the measure could eventually bring in as much to state coffers as alcohol does, more than $300 million a year.
“Our state is facing a huge financial deficit and deficits are projected for a few more years,” Dickerson said, referring to the projected $2.6 billion hole lawmakers will need to fill next year. “We need to look at revenue and see what might be possible.”
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that tough economic times across the country have lawmakers looking at everything, and may lead even more states to eventually consider the potential tax value of pot.