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Originally published Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 4:30 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington state should lead on marijuana legalization

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes argues that its time to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. Outright prohibition isn't working.

Special to The Times

MARIJUANA prohibition is more than a practical failure; it has been a misuse of both taxpayer dollars and the government's authority over the people.

As the steward of reduced prosecutorial dollars, I am the first Seattle city attorney to stop prosecuting marijuana-possession cases and to call for the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana for adult recreational use.

We have long since agreed as a society that substances should not be prohibited by the government simply because they can be harmful if misused or consumed in excess. Alcohol, food and cars can all be extremely dangerous under certain circumstances, and cigarettes are almost always harmful in the long term. All these things kill many people every year.

But we don't try to ban any of them — because we can't, and we don't need to. Instead, we regulate their manufacture and use, we tax them, and we encourage those who choose to use them to do so in as safe a manner as possible.

Marijuana is far more like alcohol than it is like hard drugs, and we should treat it as such. We address alcohol abuse primarily as a public-health issue, and we should do the same with marijuana abuse. Inebriation only becomes a crime for those who choose to get behind the wheel, whether the intoxicant is alcohol, prescription pain killers or cannabis.

My focus as city attorney is to ensure that we have ways to regulate the production and distribution of any potentially harmful substance so that we limit the potential risk and harm. Outright prohibition is an ineffective means of doing this.

Instead, I support tightening laws against driving while stoned, preventing the sale of marijuana to minors, and ensuring that anything other than small-scale noncommercial marijuana production takes place in regulated agricultural facilities — and not residential basements.

It is critical that we get these details right. Ending marijuana prohibition isn't a panacea, but it's a necessary step in the right direction, and the specifics of a rational regulatory system for marijuana are important.

Ending marijuana prohibition is pro-law enforcement because it would enhance the legitimacy of our laws and law enforcement. As Albert Einstein said of Prohibition in 1921, "Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced."

Marijuana prohibition cannot be and has not been consistently enforced, and keeping it on the books diminishes the people's respect for law enforcement.

I applaud the state Legislature for recently holding a hearing on House Bill 1550, which would legalize marijuana. This is an important start to the conversation about ending prohibition, which I believe is likely to lead to a successful citizens' initiative if the Legislature doesn't step up and do the right thing first.

Ending marijuana prohibition and focusing on rational regulation and taxation is a pro-public safety, pro-public health, pro-limited government policy. I urge the state Legislature to move down this road.

Even if marijuana remains illegal under federal law, it is still time for Washington state to act. As with alcohol prohibition, collective action by the states will help us end the federal marijuana prohibition and transition to a rational and functional system for regulating and taxing marijuana.

The state of Washington should not use the continued existence of the federal prohibition as an excuse for leaving our misguided and wasteful state prohibition system in place.

Pete Holmes is serving his first term as Seattle city attorney.

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