Rick Steves lights up marijuana conversation
February 10, 2009 · 10:17 AM
When television host and travel writer Rick Steves produced a televised "infomercial" out of his own pocket last year, he thought — much like travel — he could get viewers thinking about one of the issues he's passionate about: Decriminalizing marijuana.
Local television stations, such as KING, KOMO and KIRO, refused to broadcast the infomercial or offered 1 a.m. Sunday broadcast times.
"If you care about democracy and it's considered courageous to talk about a law that is counter-productive, we've got problems," Steves said.
Host to a sold-out crowd Feb. 4 at the Kirkland Performance Center, Steves and several other speakers discussed the history of marijuana laws and their effects for the program "Marijuana: It's Time For a Conversation."
He took the opportunity to criticize local media companies as failing to foster a dialogue on the issue, claiming the law is more costly than the drug problem. Steves did acknowledge, however, an advantage in campaigning for the issue.
"Nobody can fire me, basically," he said amid a roar of laughter.
Steves screened the station-censored 30-minute infomercial, which was filmed at KOMO's Seattle studios, detailing marijuana's emergence as a controlled substance after the U.S. prohibition on alcohol was lifted. The event was co-hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union's director of drug policy, Alison Holcomb, and included speakers State Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata and retired Whatcom Superior Court Judge David Nichols.
Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimates that the state could save $7.6 million a year if the law were changed, based on the 11,553 misdemeanor arrests made in 2007. The heavy influx, said local attorney Ken Davidson of Davison, Czeisler and Kilpatric, could be clogging up the courts. He asked the panel of speakers if using the criminal justice system was an appropriate use of controlling the drug.
"To file a lawsuit with Superior Court, your trial date is 18 months off," Davidson noted. "Justice delayed is often justice denied."
Steves and others also said the mandatory jail time for misdemeanor possession was in part prompting the need for a proposed regional jail. According to a 2006 Jail Action Group (JAG) study, about 3 percent of King County misdemeanor inmates were jailed on drug-related charges.
Steves urged the audience to contact their local legislators and council members and talk to them about the issue.
"If I can inspire you to talk about marijuana in polite company, we're all going to get somewhere," he said.
More on marijuana
Possession of 40 grams of marijuana (a little over an ounce) or less in Washington state is a misdemeanor offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one day in jail and a fine of $250 for the first offense. Any amount over that is a felony, which could result in up to a five-year jail term and a $10,000 fine.
In the state legislature, legislation on decriminalizing marijauna is working its way through both the House and Senate. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) introduced a bill scheduled for a committee hearing this week. The proposed change would reclassify possession of 40 grams of marijuana or less to a civil infraction, subject to a $100 fine.
In September 2003, Seattle voters passed an initiative to relax enforcement of marijuana possession laws, making it the police department's lowest priority.
Story by Kendall Watson, Reporter newspapers