Three years ago, former U.S. Attorney John McKay was somewhere near the front lines of the nation's drug war.
Directing federal prosecutions in Western Washington before he was fired in 2006 by the administration that appointed him, McKay's office sent marijuana smugglers and farmers to prison on decade-long terms. It indicted a loudmouth Canadian pro-pot activist for selling cannabis seeds by mail order.
So the crowd at an Edmonds auditorium could have been forgiven its surprise on Monday when McKay stood on stage with travel author and decriminalization advocate Rick Steves and declared that, of course, he is "against stupid laws."
"I think there has to be a shift in the paradigm," said McKay, now a professor at Seattle University. "The correct policy change would be a top-to-bottom review of the nation's drug laws."
McKay joined a panel as part of an effort by Steves and the American Civil Liberties Union to, in their view, return rationality to discussions about the nation's drug laws. They were joined there by Egil "Bud" Krogh, a former official in the Nixon White House who gained notoriety during the Watergate scandal, and state Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, an Edmonds Democrat who joked Monday about being dubbed by her colleagues the "Marijuana Queen of Northwest Washington" for her efforts on medical marijuana law reform.
While the panelists did not agree on all points, each said they see the need for substantive change in the way marijuana is regulated and offenders are punished. They also each spoke about the fears, or lack of courage, of elected officials in addressing issues surrounding the drug.
Steves and the ACLU launched the initiative last year partly as a response to that fear. The effort, built around an infomercial "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation," is aimed at encouraging citizens to discuss the issue openly.
"This is an issue that's scary for people," Steves said. "I have friends who oppose what I do on this issue because they're worried about their kids. What they don't understand is that so are we."
Addressing the audience, a group mixed in age and outward appearance, Roberts argued that the law as it stands takes an unjust toll on minority communities. In essence, she said, it leaves law enforcement agencies to pursue people who are easiest to catch while their efforts could be more productively spent elsewhere.
At the same time, she said, lawmakers -- even those who believe the laws to be unjust with regard to marijuana -- are afraid of being branded soft on crime.
"As a community and a society, we're afraid of crime," Roberts said. "And if what you're doing is being referred to as 'soft on crime,' even without details, legislators respond negatively to it."
Roberts also said the Legislature must revisit the state's medical marijuana law, which, in her view, fails to adequately protect patients.
McKay, though, said such changes fail to address the larger problems with marijuana laws in the country.
Even as the Obama administration has adopted medical marijuana rules similar to those he advocated while U.S. Attorney -- specifically, that federal agents not interfere with state medical marijuana regulations -- McKay said that simply having federal agencies ignore the laws enacted by Congress does not go far enough.
"Federal law makes the possession of any amount of marijuana a crime," McKay said. "So, even if you've got a certificate from your doctor, a federal officer could arrest you. … That's just bad policy."
McKay faulted Congress for failing to take initiative on the issue. It is not the place of federal prosecutors or law officers to make policy, he said, nor should the White House go it alone.
In the end, he argued, marijuana should not be lumped in with cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin as part of the war on drugs. Marijuana law, McKay said, "should look a lot more like alcohol (regulations) and a lot less like cocaine and methamphetamine (laws)."
November 16, 2009