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4-20 U-District panel advocates for marijuana legalization

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Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles speaks as to why decriminalization is an important first step in legalizing marijuana.

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Panelists discussed the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana during the 43rd District Democrats meeting on Tuesday.

On a day recognized by many as a marijuana holiday, a panel including a lawmaker, a judge and an activist advocated for the legalization of marijuana use at a talk in the U-District on April 20.

The 43rd District Democrats convened the panel at the University Heights Center to discuss how far legislative action should go, be it decriminalization or legalization. The event brought Teamsters, medical-marijuana users, elected officials and community members to support change to marijuana law.

Hosted by Dominic Holden, news editor for the alternative Seattle newspaper The Stranger, the panel was unsurprisingly liberal.

“I believe that marijuana possession should be legalized, regulated and taxed,” said panelist Pete Holmes, the Seattle city attorney who promised not to prosecute for marijuana possession for personal use during the 2009 election.

Other panelists included Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Sanders, who has repeatedly ruled in favor of medical-marijuana usage — twice being the lone dissenting vote — and state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welle, who recently sponsored a bill to expand medical-marijuana accessibility. The governor signed it into law April 4.

Activist and attorney Doug Hiatt, also on the panel, is championing the campaign for Initiative 1068, which legalizes all use of marijuana. He spoke in the place of Jeffrey Steinborn, who co-authored the initiative and is also a legalization advocate.

Panelists largely agreed with efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

“Even though I prefer to have full legalization with regulations and taxing, I think it is more likely to do that incrementally and to first achieve decriminalization,” Kohl-Welles said.

She supports marijuana regulations to maintain public safety and taxes on marijuana to raise revenue. Holmes, too, is in support of regulation.

“The only way I can protect patients is to get marijuana legalized,” Hiatt said.

His initiative is a “complete repeal on prohibition” without the regulations and taxing that Kohl-Welles supports. He said that when the state becomes involved, their actions are inevitably controlled by the federal government, so Kohl-Welles’ strategy is impractical.

The two, though, are not in opposition to one another and support each other’s efforts, despite the contradiction. All the panelists were for legalization. Seattle voters passed an initiative in 2003 to make possession the city’s “lowest law enforcement priority,” when the marijuana is intended for personal use. The policy has had no evident effect on youth marijuana usage and has not visibly increased crime or worsened public health, according to city reports.

UW Police Department Commander Jerome Solomon said that officers “tend to use discretion for smaller amounts” of the substance when considering submitting for prosecution. This is why some offenses on campus result in confiscation and warning, while others are passed along to county or city prosecutors.

Massachusetts passed a decriminalization law in 2008, joining 13 other states around the country. It is possible Washington could follow with this November’s ballot initiative.

But to Holmes, legalization is the inevitable end, saying, “decriminalization is at best a temporary fix, anyway.”

Reach contributing writer William Dow at development@dailyuw.com.

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