Former U.S. Attorney John McKay debates Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Regional Drug Task Force, over Initiative 502, which McKay filed and which would regulate and tax marijuana like liquor.

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If there’s one thing that brings people together, it’s this: Marijuana regulation is a mess.

But the granular details about how to fix it divided a panel of law-enforcement and public-health experts convened Thursday night to debate Initiative 502, a landmark proposal to regulate and tax marijuana like liquor that is on the November ballot.

John McKay, who filed the initiative after witnessing the “complete failure” of marijuana prohibition as the U.S. Attorney in Seattle for six years, said legalization was a “simple solution.”

“If it’s a failure, does that mean we need to try something new?” asked McKay. “There’s millions of dollars in marijuana produced out there, but it’s all going to cartels, it’s going to gangs. The change should be to bring legal business in, and grow it legally.”

The state estimates that I-502, the first marijuana initiative on the ballot since voters authorized medical cannabis in 1998, would raise $560 million a year via state-licensed marijuana grow farms and retail stores. If passed, it would be the nation’s most radical change in marijuana law in generations.

But Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Regional Drug Task Force, scoffed at McKay’s core argument, that heavily taxed marijuana would end the black market.

“You will open a black market where you can sell this product for cheaper than what the government is selling,” he said.

The debate, at Mukilteo City Hall, is part of a series of forums kicking off the nationally watched campaign. I-502 would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana, and legalize and heavily tax sales from newly created, state-licensed marijuana stores, with the state Liquor Control Board setting regulations by December, 2013.

Colorado is the only other state with marijuana legalization on its November ballot.

I-502’s supporters include another former U.S. Attorney, a retired FBI supervisor, several judges, public-health officials, a drug researcher, the King County Labor Council, the state Democratic Party, as well as Seattle’s mayor, city attorney and entire City Council.

“We’ve been at this 42 years. We have never seen an amalgam of prominent local politicians still in good standing come out in favor of a reform measure as bold as this,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a leading marijuana-legalization group, said in an interview.

But law-enforcement groups and medical-marijuana patients have lined up against I-502, for very different reasons. Police, including Slack, say it is a gateway to greater marijuana acceptance, especially among youth.

Patients fear a new driving-while-stoned threshold in I-502 would effectively prevent them from legally driving. A strong contingent of them watched the debate, peppering McKay and another supporter, University of Washington marijuana researcher Roger Roffman, with questions.

Roffman defended those provisions as a political necessity.

“The public would not consider a sea change of this nature were it not to take into account public safety,” he said.

A Gallup Poll in October found nationwide support for legalizing marijuana was above 50 percent for the first time in the 42 years since Gallup started asking the question. In Washington, a poll in November on I-502’s specific approach found 57 percent support.

I-502 doesn’t amend the state medical-marijuana law, and Slack said adding a new set of laws would complicate police officers’ already difficulty task of sifting legal from illegal cannabis. The driving-under-the-influence provisions, for example, could require time-consuming blood draws to detect active THC content in drivers.

“My goal is not to arrest everyone in this room,” Slack said. “My goal is to help you stay within the lines of the law. But right now, the lines of the law are pretty damn confusing for us.”

If passed, the state Office of Financial Management estimates that at least 363,000 customers would buy at least 93.5 tons of marijuana, each year. But the marijuana tax-revenue projections — at least $130 million more than the state garnered under the old state liquor — are guesses, because no state has done what I-502 proposes.

About 10,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession each year, although not all are prosecuted. When the debate panel struggled, in response to a question from the audience, to explain why marijuana was classified along with PCP and methamphetamine, McKay paused.

“It’s interesting that we can’t articulate why,” he said. “I think most people know in their experience that it is ludicrous.”

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or On Twitter @jmartin206.