By Mike Faulk
YAKIMA, Wash. — When George Rohrbacher talks about marijuana prohibition, his biggest concern isn’t the merits of the drug, but a statistic he likes to call "the butcher’s bill."
The numbers add up to about 26 million over the last 40 years. They don’t represent the costs of enforcement, but the number of people who have been arrested for using pot.
"Even today, in the year 2012, we will arrest another 850,000 Americans for pot," said Rohrbacher, a former state lawmaker, before a crowd of about 150 people at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday night. "This is a national disgrace with a local solution."
Rohrbacher and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper shared the stage and statistics supporting Initiative 502, which calls for the state to regulate and sell marijuana for recreational use to adults. The measure would also impose a 25 percent excise tax.
"Marijuana is dangerous, but only if you get arrested for it," Rohrbacher said to laughter and applause from the audience.
Stamper, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, compared the current laws to alcohol prohibition, and the black market and associated violence that sprang up as a result.
"Marijuana prohibition causes crime," Stamper said. "It causes violence and it causes deaths."
The heart of the matter for voters should be whether the impact of enforcement of laws against marijuana matches the hypothetical consequences of legalizing its use, said Stamper, who served as Seattle police chief from 1994 to 2000.
Rohrbacher, a Klickitat County farmer who was an appointed Republican senator from the 17th District in Clark County during the late 1980s.
Under the initiative, residents 21 years and older could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana; one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies; or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids.
Washington state already has a voter-approved medical marijuana law that gives doctors the right to recommend — but not prescribe — marijuana for people suffering from cancer and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."
"Last year there were 1,000 deaths in the U.S. from gastric bleeding caused by aspirin," Rohrbacher said. "Do you know how many deaths in this country last year were caused by marijuana?
Stamper said legalization doesn’t open the doors to the public’s use of marijuana when in fact the substance is already available widely on the black market. He said it would be more difficult for minors to access marijuana if it were legalized and regulated, rather than obtained clandestinely from drug dealers.
Also on stage were Alison Holcomb, the director of Initiative 502 sponsor New Approach Washington, and local criminal defense attorney Alex Newhouse.
Holcomb said the federal government has shown that it may not always challenge states’ marijuana reform laws, such as for medicinal purposes, but it will never spearhead efforts to legalize marijuana. That’s up to the states, she said.
"This is an issue where the federal government will not take leadership," Holcomb said. "The states have to take leadership."
A recent analysis by the state Office of Financial Management estimated that I-502 could raise at least $560 million a year in new taxes. However, the analysis noted that revenues would be "adversely impacted" if federal authorities cracked down on the state, as they threatened to do when California voters were considering legalizing the drug in 2010. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.
While a number of former and current law enforcement officials have announced their support for I-502, there remain plenty of detractors from the same community, including Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin.
"I understand there’s a large group of people who enjoy the effects of marijuana or think it should be available for medical reasons," Irwin said in an interview prior to Wednesday night’s event. "But I oppose society opening the door further to substances that will inebriate people."
Irwin could not cite numbers, but said he believes the amount of police resources going toward enforcement of marijuana laws is already minimal. He said the biggest expenses go toward busting major operations, such as outdoor marijuana grows.
"I think the efforts are very reasonable," Irwin said.
Some backers of Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jay Inslee hope the initiative will give the former congressman a boost at the polls in November by bringing out younger liberal voters in support of the measure, although an Inslee campaign spokeswoman has said he will vote against it.
His chief Republican rival in the race, Attorney General Rob McKenna, also opposes the measure.
* Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
* Contact Mike Faulk at 509-577-7675 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Faulk.