A Smart New Initiative Makes Washington State Ground Zero in the National Fight to End Marijuana Prohibition
You've been waiting for this since the first time you got high in your basement. Or since you first talked about pot laws with a smart friend.
You know pot prohibition is just as much of a sham today as alcohol prohibition was in its day. You've been hoping someone—someone with a real strategy and money to win—would end this nonsense.
Now that's finally happening. On June 22, Washington State, in a way no state has ever attempted, will begin a serious effort to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. The method: an initiative, filed by a new coalition of health care professionals, lawyers, and drug law reform advocates.
"This is the best effort that has ever been made at the grassroots level in the entire country," says Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, one of several cosponsors of the campaign, called New Approach Washington. "This is the states assuming leadership where Congress has abdicated responsibility."
If passed by voters next year, the initiative will establish a complete farm-to-joint regulatory framework: state-licensed growers, distributors, and retail outlets, and rules for adults 21 and over to buy and consume marijuana. Meanwhile, it would establish penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana, maintain rules for minors, and set buffers around schools where marijuana stores would be banned.
"This is the first reform initiative that is truly comprehensive," says Holmes.
The backers aren't a bunch of stoners. In addition to Holmes (an elected prosecutor), cosponsors include University of Washington School of Social Work professor emeritus Roger Roffman, former Spokane Regional Health District director Dr. Kim Thorburn, former director of the HIV/AIDS Program of Public Health–Seattle & King County Bob Wood, former Washington State Bar Association president Salvador Mungia, and PBS travel host Rick Steves.
They have the backing and financial support of the local and national ACLU, powerful labor unions, and Democratic Party supporters that want—maybe even need—the draw of a marijuana measure to increase young voter turnout in a presidential election year.
But it won't be a cakewalk. Polling shows the measure up by only about 11 points before an inevitable onslaught of scrutiny and resistance (including many legitimate concerns about the health impacts of increased marijuana availability). If it wins, a legal challenge is likely. While in the courts, marijuana possession of up to an ounce would be decriminalized (no penalty but not legal), and the legality of the new state-run regulatory system would butt heads with long-standing federal prohibition.
Still, some state needs to go first. Some state with the political will, the voter enthusiasm, the resources, and the strategy—a state where everything is set in place to buck 75 years of pot prohibition. It may sound crazy, it may seem like a long shot, but people around the country (politicos and academics who watch these sorts of big changes) say Washington State is that state. They say now is the time. They say this coalition is strong enough to break decades of entrenched policy.
Alison Holcomb, campaign director of New Approach Washington, is certain the initiative will get on the ballot next year. "A majority of Washington voters support marijuana legalization," she says. "The question is not whether legalization will happen, but when. The answer is 2012."
WHAT IT ALLOWS Adults 21 years of age and older could buy pot at licensed outlets in the quantities mentioned above. The Washington State Liquor Control Board would set the number of stores per county, based on each county's population. What wouldn't be allowed: For drivers, the initiative establishes a THC cutoff in the bloodstream analogous to the 0.08 cutoff for driving under the influence of alcohol. If you're over the THC limit, you're automatically guilty of DUI. Selling and home growing would be prohibited—to address concerns about unregulated marijuana farms—except by authorized medical marijuana patients. Use by minors would remain a misdemeanor.
WHEN IT HAPPENS This is a so-called initiative to the legislature, which goes before lawmakers in Olympia before reaching voters. By choosing this strategy, organizers draw out the debate for over a year. Sponsors circulate petitions through the summer and fall, and when the legislature convenes next January, lawmakers can either pass it outright (not gonna happen) or place it on the November ballot. The legislature could also send voters an alternative measure along with the initiative if they have enough votes to do that (probably not gonna happen).
WHERE THE MONEY GOES Marijuana is the state's number-two cash crop, after apples, and legalizing it would provide the state a net benefit, from both new revenue and law-enforcement savings, of at least $240 million per year. Of that, $175 million would be largely earmarked for drug abuse prevention and science-based education programs, developed in consultation with the UW Social Development Research Group. "One of the major costs of marijuana being illegal is the misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies that occur both from the government and from some people who argue for legalizing marijuana," says Dr. Roger Roffman, a cosponsor of the initiative and a UW professor who ran a marijuana treatment project. "I think the public is better served by acknowledging all the truths of marijuana."
FROM THE FARM TO JOINT The state would collect a 25 percent excise tax at each stage of production, similar to the existing model for producing, distributing, and selling liquor. For the retail consumer, who must also pay sales tax, this means that at least half of the cost would be taxes (more about how that money would be spent under the revenue graph, which is to the left). The Washington State Liquor Control Board would be required to regularly review the tax levels to discourage use while undercutting illegal market prices.
THE PROBLEM WITH PROHIBITION The rate of marijuana arrests in the US has far outpaced population growth. While the population grew only 24 percent from 1990 to 2010 (248 million to 308 million), in roughly that same time frame, pot arrests increased by more than 200 percent. In Washington State, where arrests are slightly lower than the national rate, law-enforcement agencies report around 9,000 marijuana arrests per year. People arrested for even a joint are often jailed, prosecuted, required to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees, and left with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.
PUBLIC OPINION Support for legalizing marijuana has grown for decades, reaching majority support only recently in certain national polls. Even so, in California last year, a poorly worded, underfunded measure to decriminalize pot failed with only 46 percent of the vote. In Washington State, polls show that a slim majority of voters support legalization and taxation, while the number opposed to legalization and taxation is more than 10 points lower. New Approach Washington hopes to convince undecided voters to support the initiative and capitalize on the young, robust voter turnout in a presidential year—and, potentially, draw more progressive voters to the polls. After meeting with statewide labor groups, campaign director Alison Holcomb says, "There is a recognition that this initiative provides a great opportunity for progressive organizations leading into the 2012 elections."