It was right there in the name: New Approach Washington.
That was the banner under which lawyers, criminal-justice officials, and soccer-mom types urged voters to approve legalizing marijuana in Washington State through a statewide initiative in 2012. Instead of just wiping all the anti-pot laws off the books, we would replace them with a highly regulated, public-health-focused system in which an infusion of new taxes from all that legal weed would fund drug treatment, prevention, education, and research. We would take a new approach.
Now, just a couple years after 56 percent of Washington State voters approved this legalization plan, state Republican leaders are hoping you won't mind if they go ahead and abandon the new-approach promise completely.
A budget plan introduced in the Republican-controlled senate tries to address the state's massive K–12 education funding problems by, in part, robbing the marijuana tax lockbox. (Their political aim: avoid creating new taxes to fund education.) If approved, this would mean that instead of directing those marijuana tax dollars toward the substance-abuse prevention and research efforts outlined in I-502, all but a small portion of marijuana taxes and fees would go to pay primarily for public schools. That small portion set aside—$6 million out of the projected hundreds of millions in state pot taxes—would go to local governments.
If you're wondering whether this kind of redirecting is legal, the answer is yes. These changes are allowed with a simple majority vote in the legislature because the initiative that created the pot taxes—and directed them to social services—is now more than two years old.
Here's how the money was supposed to be divvied up, according to I-502: A cut off the top is shared between the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the University of Washington (for an educational website), the state Institute for Public Policy (for a cost-benefit study), and the state Department of Social and Health Services (for a survey asking middle- and high-school students about their drug and alcohol use). Then whatever's left is split between prevention and treatment programs, educational campaigns about marijuana, research at the UW and Washington State University, a high-school drop-out-prevention program, and health care.
This is no small bundle of cash we're talking about. State revenue forecasts predict that marijuana taxes and fees will bring in about $222 million over the next two years and $363 million by 2017–2019. The senate and house both count on even higher marijuana numbers: The senate includes $296 million in its current budget and the house expects $270 million.
As Representative Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) ruefully puts it: "The irony of the Republicans who were almost categorically opposed to Initiative 502 now opening their veins and being addicted to marijuana is not lost on anyone."
Senator Andy Hill (R-Redmond), who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, didn't respond to The Stranger's requests for comment, but he outlined his logic for raiding the pot taxes in a press conference announcing the senate budget. "Citizens expect us to govern with what we have," Hill said.
But might citizens also want the marijuana legalization model they voted for?
"What we're really talking about is whether we're serious about ending the war on drugs and how we're going to go about doing that," says Alison Holcomb, the ACLU lawyer who was one of the primary authors of the initiative. "These [funding] dedications were built in, in an effort to test the theory that there are public-health options we could be pursuing instead of arresting and locking up people for problematic drug use."
It's not just Republicans who are eyeing pot money. While the house Democrats' budget maintains most of the dedicated funding in I-502, they also want to divert some of the pot money to non-marijuana-related needs like life-skills training in schools and home-visitation programs for new parents.
"In either case," says a recent letter from the ACLU of Washington to lawmakers, redirecting pot money "contravenes the will of the voters."
If legislators are successful in redirecting pot revenues, the programs expecting that cash—because, you know, it was promised to them two years ago—will have to either abandon their marijuana-related plans or make do with whatever limited budgets they already have.
The UW had hoped to use some of its research dollars to address unanswered questions about driving while high, whether marijuana is really a "gateway drug," and what medical conditions marijuana can successfully treat, according to Dennis Donovan, director of the school's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. The school has also already done some pro bono work developing an educational website about marijuana, but it has yet to be reimbursed by the state as promised in the initiative.
The Department of Health, meanwhile, is facing survey results that show that in the two years since I-502 passed, more high-school students in Washington now perceive little to no risk from smoking marijuana, even as research shows marijuana negatively affects still-developing brains. So DOH has been testing an ad campaign that encourages teenagers to wait until they're adults to try pot. Without new funding, it's unclear how much they'll have to scale back those efforts. (The senate's plan does use other money to give DOH about $2 million a year for a marijuana education campaign, but projections show the department would be getting significantly more than that—$12 million a year by 2017—if it's funded with marijuana taxes instead.)
"This is the time to do it," says Kristi Weeks, who works on marijuana laws for DOH, about the educational programs for which pot tax dollars were earmarked, "before cultural and societal norms change further."
Upset that the Republican-controlled senate is trying to steal pot money? Write to the senators who crafted this proposal: Republican Andy Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Democrat Jim Hargrove (email@example.com).