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Originally published Friday, November 11, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Guest columnist

Sign Initiative 502 to put marijuana legalization before state Legislature

Washington state and its local communities expend great resources to enforce ineffective prohibitions on the use of marijuana. Three guest columnists, including a former federal prosecutor and two former judges, urge voters to sign Initiative 502, an initiative to the Legislature that would decriminalize marijuana.

Special to The Times

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WE are, respectively, a former federal prosecutor and two former judges who have not only observed but also enforced marijuana laws at the federal, state and local levels. As we write this, our former colleagues continue to enforce these laws, as is their duty as legal professionals and public officials.

We ask that these laws be changed. It is time for a different, more effective approach. That's why we endorse Initiative 502, which would decriminalize marijuana in our state and make a long-overdue change for the better in public policy.

I-502 would replace the existing marijuana-prohibition approach with a public-health approach that allows adults 21 and over to purchase limited quantities of marijuana from state-licensed and state-regulated businesses. The sale of marijuana would be taxed and the new revenue — estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually — would go instead to help meet important public needs.

Signatures are being gathered now for I-502. If enough signatures are collected, the measure will go before the Legislature in January for their consideration and adoption or, if the Legislature doesn't approve it, it will be placed on the November 2012 general election ballot.

Decriminalizing marijuana would allow our state and local governments to refocus limited police and court resources on more important priorities than arresting, jailing and trying adult marijuana users. It would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars that are currently flowing to criminal organizations each year to legitimate businesses. It would restore respect for our laws and law enforcement. And it would decrease the disproportionate criminalization of people of color who have historically been harmed most by the existing laws.

We each have served as public officials, and care deeply about effective government that serves the public well. We don't see treating adult marijuana users as criminals as an appropriate use of government resources.

Fully half of Washington state drug arrests, and almost half of drug arrests nationwide, are now for simple possession of marijuana. This is happening at a time when our nation is grappling with a crisis of over-incarceration. The U.S. represents just 5 percent of the world's population, but we house 25 percent of its inmates. Drug offenders now constitute 20 percent of our state prison population and 52 percent of our federal prison population.

Imprisoning someone for one year in Washington state costs almost $40,000. Meanwhile, we spend just under $10,000 annually on each public-school student. Every dollar spent arresting, prosecuting and jailing a person for marijuana use is a dollar that could have been spent on education, housing, health care or other important, unmet needs.

On top of the problem of wasted resources, there is the issue of wasted lives. Drug laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color. In Washington, an African American is three times as likely to be arrested, three times as likely to be charged and three times as likely to be convicted of a marijuana offense as a white person, despite the fact that white Washingtonians use marijuana at a higher rate.

As with alcohol, marijuana can be abused. So our purpose is not to promote its use, but to recognize the reality that exists. The criminalization and prohibition of marijuana use has not worked any better than did the criminalization and prohibition of alcohol. It's time to end the failed experiment with marijuana prohibition and replace it with a well-considered public-health framework that dedicates money to prevention and treatment rather than incarceration.

For those of us who believe in effective, pragmatic government that focuses resources on our highest needs and serves the greatest good, reforming our marijuana laws is a change we can make, in an era when so many other things seem intractable.

We encourage our fellow voters to take a step in a new direction, to take a new approach.

Please sign and support I-502.

Katrina Pflaumer is a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington. Robert Alsdorf is a lawyer and retired state Superior Court judge. Anne Levinson is a former Municipal Court judge and former deputy mayor of Seattle.

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