John McKay, the unlikely champion of marijuana legalization, joked that he was about to be fed to lions. Then he walked on stage and tried to convince about 130 sheriffs and police chiefs that he was not crazy.
For 90 minutes Wednesday, the former federal prosecutor from Seattle blasted drug laws as failed, antiquated policies that were a limitless cash machine for murderous organized-crime syndicates feeding America's seemingly bottomless appetite for marijuana.
A few in the audience — a gathering of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) at a Lake Chelan resort — nodded. But mostly the picture was one of frowns beneath mustaches.
In the end, the cops voted as expected: They unanimously recommended rejection of Initiative 502, a measure headed to the Legislature or to voters next November that would legalize, tax and regulate small marijuana sales similarly to alcohol.
But after listening to McKay and a counter-argument by Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug-policy adviser, several sheriffs and police chiefs described being squeezed between the rising social acceptance of marijuana, laws banning its use, and increasingly limited law-enforcement resources.
McKay said passing I-502 could begin a state-based movement to force Congress into re-examining marijuana laws. "It will take states to say: This is wrong, this is our statement," he said.
Sue Rahr, King County sheriff and president of WASPC, said that type of advocacy can make cops uneasy. "We enforce the law, and here we are being asked to help change the law," said Rahr, who declined to take a position in I-502. "That's a dilemma."
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said he'd have preferred the group take no position after hearing McKay. "What we have is so broken," he said. "The long-term strategy of the DEA is, 'Spend more money, hire more agents.' I hope for better."
In his five years as the top federal prosecutor in Seattle, appointed by President George W. Bush, McKay's office filed charges against Canada's "Prince of Pot" and led a case involving helicopter smuggling of B.C. Bud that ultimately netted $2 million, a ton of marijuana and at least a dozen convictions.
After he was forced to resign with eight other U.S. attorneys in a politically motivated purge by the Bush administration, McKay endorsed marijuana legalization in a Seattle Times opinion piece. On Wednesday, he reiterated that he doesn't smoke pot and "doesn't like people very much who smoke pot."
But marijuana prohibition is the reason that British Columbia-based gangs smuggling high-grade pot are the "dominant organized crime in the Northwest," and it accounts for 40 to 60 percent of funding for Mexican cartels, he said.
Prohibition also fails its objective, he said. "I think it's pretty clear that our criminalization of marijuana for the last 70 years as a vehicle to reduce its use is a failure," said McKay, citing DEA figures that 16 million Americans regularly use it.
He reminded the assembled cops that a second former U.S. attorney, Kate Pflaumer, and the former FBI chief in Seattle endorsed I-502, helping make it the strongest legalization campaign to date.
State data show at least 9,308 adults and 1,217 juveniles were charged statewide in 2010 for marijuana possession of less than 40 grams (about 1.4 ounces).
Sabet, who worked for federal drug czar and former Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, said studies show use would undoubtedly rise with legalization, and new marijuana taxes would not cover the increased societal costs.
Campaign director Alison Holcomb, who joined McKay in Chelan, said I-502 had about 230,000 signatures and almost certainly will qualify for the November 2012 ballot.
If I-502 were to pass, the state Liquor Control Board, based on federal drug-use surveys, estimates that about 445,000 people — 10 percent of the adults over age 21 — would use marijuana. The analysis estimates that 95 percent of users would consume two grams — roughly two thumb-sized buds — a week, and the remaining 5 percent of more hard-core users would smoke 2 grams a day.
Based on those estimates, I-502 would make marijuana a top-five agricultural product in Washington, with gross receipts of nearly $582 million, according to research by the state Legislature. With a 25 percent tax at each link of the production, distribution and retail chain, I-502 would generate $215 million a year, with nearly two-thirds of it earmarked for research and addiction prevention.
But one cop at Wednesday's debate, who declined to give his name, said his son's struggle with marijuana was serious enough that he had his son arrested. The young man has "straightened himself out," the cop said.
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