Most Whatcom County Council members support the legalization of marijuana.
Some say the drug isn't dangerous; others argue that enforcement of marijuana laws is a drain on county resources.
State and federal governments will have the final say, but some members said they would support a resolution asking the county's congressional delegates to end the prohibition against marijuana.
Two members recently voted to reject a $5,000 grant from the Washington State Patrol to the Sheriff's Office for finding and removing marijuana grow sites. The grant was approved 5-2 despite the arguments of council members Ken Mann and Barbara Brenner.
"That just seems like a waste of money to me," Mann said before the Aug. 7 vote.
At a meeting that morning of the Finance and Administrative Services Committee, Brenner had stronger words about the county's role in enforcing laws against marijuana production.
"I think this really sends a ridiculous message," Brenner told Undersheriff Jeff Parks and other council members at the committee meeting. "We have way more than enough methamphetamine and other drugs to keep us real busy in Whatcom County."
Far from being a gateway drug, marijuana isn't in the same conversation as meth, opiates and other addictive substances, said Sam Crawford, who as a council member has served on the county's Substance Abuse Advisory Board for more than a decade.
"I don't recall ever having much discussion in the last decade (on the advisory board) about marijuana," Crawford said in a phone interview. The drug isn't addictive, he added, and he called the notion that marijuana is a "gateway drug" to harder substances "speculative."
Crawford suggested in the finance committee meeting that the council consider a resolution calling on the state's U.S. senators and local members of Congress to "address the issue" of marijuana laws, perhaps even to legalize the drug.
Initiative 502, which will be on the November state ballot, would legalize marijuana for personal use in Washington but isn't the best approach to changing the law, Crawford said. The federal government can still enforce its marijuana laws in the state, so they must be addressed in Congress, he said.
"Why hasn't Congress at least debated this?" Crawford said. "If there was a resolution from the municipalities ... people in Congress would start paying attention."
Council member Pete Kremen said prosecution of marijuana laws in particular was a waste of resources. The burden has shifted to the county prosecutor because federal agencies no longer pursue smaller marijuana cases, Kremen said.
It's widely believed among county officials that federal agencies won't prosecute marijuana seizures worth less than $250,000, a claim the federal Department of Justice denies.
"Apparently, the federal government doesn't think that they should prosecute anything that's under a quarter million dollars," Kremen said, leaving county taxpayers "picking up the financial burden for prosecuting these people when the federal government doesn't."
But Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice office in Seattle, said there is no dollar threshold for pot prosecutions.
"We do not have guidelines of that nature," she said. "We work very closely with local law enforcement to determine which cases need to be prosecuted federally."
When asked at the committee meeting about the $250,000 threshold, Parks said he couldn't speak for the U.S. Attorney's Office, but he could confirm increased prosecutions at the county level.
Kremen was speaking on behalf of concerns he said were held by county Prosecutor David McEachran, who has been out of the office and unavailable for comment.
Sheriff's officials said the County Council's stand on marijuana laws and the specific uses of the grant money are separate issues.
"We understand the whole debate on legalizing marijuana or not," Parks said in an interview. "In the meantime, our (Drug) Task Force has to go out and deal with these large-scale marijuana grows that have many other impacts aside from the issue of, 'Should marijuana be legal?'"
Council members recognized that marijuana grow operations, especially on public lands, harm the environment and are dangerous to hikers. Council member Carl Weimer, who went into the committee meeting opposed to the grant, said during the meeting that he had changed his vote.
"It's getting almost scary for the public to visit some of the public lands these days because you don't know what you're going to walk into," he said.
Weimer still thought enforcement of marijuana laws was a "failed policy."
"We think legalization might cause some of these problems to go away," he said.
Council member Kathy Kershner said she, too, had doubts about whether the grant would be money well spent, but approved of it based on the threat marijuana growers pose on public land.
Of all of the council members, Bill Knutzen was the staunchest opponent of relaxing marijuana laws. He said in an interview that resources used enforcing those laws should not be diverted to the trafficking of harder drugs. He said he would not support a resolution calling for legalization of marijuana at the federal level - a resolution that in any case might not appear on the council's agenda.
"It's not our job to create federal legislation," Knutzen said. "I'm more concerned with what we do in Whatcom County than trying to steer things on a federal level."
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2266.