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Marijuana petitioners clash with ACLU-Washington over legalization effort

A grass-roots campaign is under way to legalize marijuana in Washington state.

Sensible Washington is the political committee behind Initiative 1068, which seeks to remove criminal penalties involving adult use, possession and cultivation of marijuana. I-1068 needs 241,153 valid voter signatures by the July 2 deadline in order to appear on November's election ballot.

Despite a well-known stance for the reform of marijuana laws, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington has drawn criticism from activists for not supporting the initiative.

ACLU of Washington issued a statement regarding its stance on I-1068, citing the absence of regulatory measures.

"While a large majority of Washingtonians support reducing the penalty for adult possession of marijuana from a crime to a civil penalty, support for legalization is less solid," according to the statement. "And those who do support full legalization understand that ‘legalization’ means treating marijuana similarly to alcohol – taxing and regulating it. Passing an initiative that does not provide for any regulation would be distinctly difficult."

An ACLU of Washington spokesman deferred all comments to the statement, which said a rejection of the initiative would be a setback for "our ongoing reform movement."

Philip Dawdy, campaign director and co-author of I-1068, is disappointed in the ACLU's stance. He said a regulation mechanism in addition to the legalization proposal could have jeopardized the initiative by opening the door to a legal challenge for "single issue violation."

"They've got time and money and institutional prestige invested in legalization. We're a challenge to them in terms of the ownership of this issue," Dawdy said of the ACLU. "We didn't set it up like that."

The recently failed marijuana decriminalization bill in the state Legislature is proof that the decision should go directly to Washington voters, Dawdy said.

"People have just hit the wall with marijuana prohibition," he said. "It's time for the people to do this."

Local connection

Federal Way resident Ray Arment will lead signature-gathering efforts in Federal Way, Fife, Milton and Des Moines. So far, a handful of volunteers have joined Arment, a medical marijuana patient himself.

Four years ago, Arment injured his neck and back in a fall, eventually becoming hooked on pain medication until trying marijuana as medicine.

"I'm completely off prescription drugs," said Arment, 48. "I feel like I'm an example that it can work. It's all about responsibility and accountability."

However, his involvement with I-1068 is aimed at another form of relief: Fear of arrest.

"Of course I'm nervous. I got two kids and a house," he said.

Rally in Olympia

CannaCare, a medical marijuana clinic based in Kirkland, led a press conference Feb. 24 on the Legislature steps in Olympia.

In addition to supporting I-1068, speakers at the rally called on state legislators to provide more legal protection for medical marijuana patients.

Steve Sarich, executive director of CannaCare, said legislators have outright failed to address the issue while tackling more trivial bills such as SB 6284, which recognizes "Leif Erickson Day," or SB 5192, which allows dogs in bars.

Sarich also criticized State v. Fry, the Jan. 21 State Supreme Court decision ruling regarding one patient whose marijuana supply was seized by police during a home search. The court upheld that police had probable cause to search the home after smelling marijuana, and that the patient exceeded the 60-day supply limit of 24 ounces and 15 plants.

"It's time to finally provide protection to arrest and prosecution of patients," he said. "The State v. Fry case has now proven to us we have no constitutional rights in the state of Washington."

Sarich is among local marijuana activists at odds with the ACLU, citing a lack of communication between the organization and the citizens. Patient registries, $100 tickets under a decriminalization bill and similar regulation processes are a violation of privacy that could lead to arrest and more, he said.

"That would be the ultimate shopping list," Sarich said. "Let the ACLU know that we will picket outside their offices the first time they bring it up."

Don Skakie, a South King County coordinator for Sensible Washington, noted that I-1068 will likely need revision by lawmakers.

"We're gonna give the Legislature something to deal with that they have to deal with. They won't be able to duck us anymore," he said. "We're going to get people out of prison, we're going to get money back into the economy and we're going to put farmers in Eastern Washington to work."

One activist credits medical marijuana for saving his life. Ric Smith, a patient advocate for Green Cross and a Sensible Washington initiative co-sponsor, was dying of AIDS in the mid-1990s. Marijuana helped restore his appetite, and by eating more food, his body was able to tolerate doctor-prescribed steroids, which made his body strong enough to then tolerate medications.

"Munchies save lives," said Smith, 46, who hopes to someday see marijuana legalized and taxed. "As a taxpayer, let me pay for something I use."

Background

In 1998, Washington state voters approved a law that removed criminal penalties and established a defense for qualified patients who possess or cultivate cannabis for medicinal use.

In 2008, the "60-day" supply for patients was defined as 24 ounces and 15 plants; both numbers have attracted intense debate from medical marijuana advocates. The law allows patients to exceed these limits if the patient can prove medical need, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Technically, the cannabis clinics are illegal. Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, in the same league as heroin. Washington's medical marijuana laws help patients with a legal defense in local or state courts. Federal laws ultimately trump state laws, however, and do not recognize the medical use of marijuana. Anyone found in violation could still be prosecuted under federal laws.

Learn more

Click here to read The Mirror's five-part series on medical marijuana in Washington state.

• To learn more about Sensible Washington and I-1068, visit http://sensiblewashington.org.

• To learn more about volunteering, contact Bonnie Fond, field director for Western Washington, at bonnfong@gmail.com or (206) 718-7316.

• Other information specific to South King County is available by e-mailing sensiblesouthkingcounty@gmail.gov

Click here to watch “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation,” a half-hour video produced by the ACLU and hosted by Rick Steves.

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