Rep. Appleton says state should legalize pot

POULSBO — For Paul Bellesen, marijuana legalization isn’t a clear cut question.

“The verdict is out on it,” said Bellesen, 50, of Poulsbo. “I can see where legalizing would get rid of some of the crime, but it’s a complicated question.”

Still, Bellesen leans against completely abandoning the generations-old drug policy.

“I just want to know more information about the pros and cons,” he said of a State House proposal to legalize marijuana co-sponsored by state Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. “I’m probably against it at this point in time.”

Bellesen is not alone. The measure Appleton supports is not likely to get a floor vote, not to mention clear the full Legislature. Even if it were approved by state officials, federal law categorizes marijuana with heroin and cocaine, substances which have no legitimate use. She supports the measure because she wants to start a public discussion.

“It’s time we take a long, hard look at it,” Appleton said. “I think people are finally coming to the realization that maybe we were wrong. It takes a long time to get there.”

Although the legalization bill has drawn interest, Appleton has supported similar proposals before.

Last session, she sponsored a measure to decriminalize marijuana, making possession a civil infraction. In Washington, possession of 40 grams or less is a misdemeanor. But since the story broke this week, she said her office has fielded several calls from constituents with 90 percent in favor.

“That makes me feel very heartened,” she said, acknowledging it is an unpopular political position. “My feeling is you do what is right and hopefully people agree with you. If they don’t, they don’t.”

Appleton graduated from high school in 1960 and said she tried marijuana when she was “college-aged.”

“I think it’s something you grow out of,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t think you can classify me as a pot head.”

Marijuana is the most used illicit drug in the U.S. The growing industry is estimated to generate billions of dollars.

About a third of all college students reported using it in 2007, with the same proportion of high school students reporting use in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. In 2007, about 7 percent of Americans 26 and older reported using marijuana.

On top of that, about 46 percent of all Americans reported in 2007 illicit drug use at least once in their lifetime.

If it is commonly used, if billions of dollars are changing hands, if it isn’t as harmful as the public has been led to believe and a handful of otherwise law-abiding people are being prosecuted compared to the many who get away with it, marijuana should be legalized, Appleton said.

“Why aren’t we regulating and taxing it?”

Although some of Appleton’s constituents are supportive, others are ambivalent, like Connie Sewell of Poulsbo.

“I’m concerned that the legalization may send the message to young people that it may be OK to do stronger, more addictive drugs,” said Sewell, 50. “I don’t know if it’s proven that it’ll generate income, but a lot of tax dollars are spent on preventing this cash crop. We’re spending way too much energy on the illegal aspect of it.”

Others think legalization would exacerbate what isn’t a youthful rite of passage but a severe social problem.

Although Tyler Rencher of Poulsbo is in the statistical group most likely to use marijuana, he thinks legalization would harm more people than marijuana prohibition.

“Personally, I’m totally against it,” said Rencher, 18. “That’s an extremely addictive drug that is easily abused.”

Margaret Hall, 74, of Poulsbo, supports marijuana reform for medical purposes, which is legal in Washington state but technically a violation of federal law.

“Substance abuse is a big problem in our society,” she said, adding that she considers alcohol a potent and dangerous drug. “Maybe we need to take another look at what we criminalize.”

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