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Forces rally to get legal pot on the ballot

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Standing next to her flip chart and easel, Renata Rollins was watching her plan for the evening slip away. It was a simple strategy: burn through the whys and hows and then the question-and-answer period.

But here she was, barely 15 minutes in, and the 80 or so assembled people were already peppering her with questions.

Nobody ever said legalizing marijuana would be easy.

Rollins is leading the signature-gathering effort in Eastern Washington for Sensible Washington, a statewide group looking to fully legalize pot.

Last week, that effort went full-bore. On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office approved the ballot language for Initiative 1068, and on Friday, the first batch of 1,000 petitions were printed. Volunteers across the state geared up for the next 18 weeks, a period in which they’ll attempt to collect 320,000 signatures (about one-third more than the 241,000 needed).

Rollins only needs 80,000 signatures from this side of the Cascades. Her plan: rally the lion’s share — some 50,000 — in Spokane. Get the rest in Pullman, Colville, Wenatchee and so on. Throw house parties. Enlist hundreds of volunteers. Mission accomplished.

But, still, the questions. “Does it limit the amount an adult is allowed to possess?” a man asked, still not believing the extent to which the initiative would reform pot laws.

“No,” Rollins began. “It’s…” “Legal!” That declaration, inserted into a brief pause of Rollins, came from Kevin Oliver, executive director of the Washington chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The crowd whooped. Rollins took control. Questions will be answered later, she told them. Pay attention.

Philip Dawdy is the brash and quick-witted campaign director for Sensible Washington.

“Douglas Hiatt [an initiative co-sponsor] and I were sitting around on New Year’s Day, watching football, and I said, ‘Look, there are two bills before the Legislature this year,’” Dawdy says, recounting the initiative’s birth.

“’The governor will never sign either of these bills. … We have to do this as an initiative. It’s the only way to get it done. It’s appropriate to take it to the people.’” How the people will vote is another question. A recent poll done by KING-TV in Seattle found that 56 percent of Washingtonians thought legalizing pot was a “good idea.”

And Dawdy thinks he can convince voters just by showing them other numbers. According to a legislative financial estimate, annual sales tax revenue from legal pot could top $45 million by 2012.

But Dawdy says the real savings come from elsewhere. “You have a range that goes up to $105 million a year,” he says, pointing to potential savings if marijuana crimes were no longer enforced or prosecuted. “It’s just tens of millions of dollars a year. That’s known, that’s provable, that’s true and that’s a goddamned waste of money.”

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder says he sympathizes with that idea, but is reserving judgment. His main goal is to make sure the city’s prepared.

“Off the cuff, I would say I’m dismayed at the amount of money we pour into prosecution and enforcement,” he says. “It always burns me up when I see a dollar being spent on that instead of violent crimes or domestic violence or even harder drugs.”

At a recent public safety committee meeting, Snyder asked Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick if she would provide guidance on an ordinance preparing the city for legal marijuana. She declined.

“There are sheriffs and chiefs who do weigh in on this, but this chief will not. It’s up to y’all,” she told the committee.

Sgt. Chris Kehl, in the drug unit for the Spokane County Sheriff’s office, weighed in. “It’s not going to save anything,” he says. The money will simply be shifted to drug abuse programs, civil lawsuits and the like. “This will just open the floodgates. Out in Grant and Yakima counties, you have … 40,000 [grow operations]. Those will just pop up everywhere.”

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