Northwest Medical Marijuana Guide
Nobody was smoking pot. They were drinking wine, eating oysters, and listening to travel celebrity Rick Steves and City Attorney Pete Holmes speak in a swank West Seattle home. The waterfront event was the latest fundraiser for Initiative 502—a measure to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana—which is looking increasingly capable of making next year's ballot.
As of late October, the campaign had racked up a total of $850,000 in hard cash and pledged contributions (including money from former Progressive Insurance CEO Peter Lewis, the Drug Policy Alliance, and numerous local donors). Initiative backers say they need to raise only $75,000 more to pay signature gatherers and put the legalization question before voters in 2012.
"All of us will be putting together our nickels and dimes and forwarding them to Washington State," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Marijuana arrests in the United States have grown for decades, reaching nearly 853,000 last year; of those, 90 percent are for simple possession. And as a Gallup poll found in October, half of Americans now support legalization. St. Pierre says that nationwide, when it comes to leveraging that public opinion into law, I-502 "could be the only game in town" next year.
But that requires money. Say what you will about paid signature gatherers, but no state initiative has successfully qualified for the Washington ballot without them since the 2008 election—when a record turnout bumped the requirement to qualify a petition to nearly a quarter-million valid signatures. So if voters want direct democracy, someone's gotta pay. And don't give me any bullshit about how legislating is best left to the legislature. Lawmakers crumple in the face of the state's most pressing decisions (ahem, income tax), so sometimes the initiative process is all we've got. And that means holding our noses and paying for signatures with a donkeyload of cash.
The I-502 campaign, formally called New Approach Washington, has the backing of Steves and Holmes (both cosponsors), along with former US Attorney John McKay. They have gathered more than 130,000 signatures since filing the measure in June and need roughly 200,000 by their December 30 deadline to ensure a sufficient cushion.
Assuming it makes the ballot, the initiative is in a strong place to win. A poll conducted in May by Quinlan Rosner Research shows 54 percent of voters support the measure and 38 percent oppose it.
In part, that's due to a somewhat controversial clause that says drivers found to have 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood are autimatically guilty of DUI. Campaign director Alison Holcomb explains that hearing about the existence of that DUI provision prompted 62 percent of voters to say they were more likely to support I-502 (only 11 percent said it would make them less likely).
But some medical-marijuana patients vehemently oppose the DUI provision, including Edward Agazarm, who has been promoting a website called Patients Against I-502. (Agazarm is also vice president of the Citizen Solutions firm that petitions for Tim Eyman initiatives, which failed to win the contract to petition for I-502.) He calls the initiative "rape," adding, "Patients are refusing to lay down and be sacrificial lambs for a legalization fantasy."
Of course, I-502 would still allow authorized patients to grow, use, and exchange pot under the existing medical-marijuana law passed by voters in 1998. But some activists are complaining that I-502 wouldn't allow recreational users to grow pot at home (only buy it in stores), and that it only allows adults to buy and possess 1 ounce of pot (patients could still have up to 24 ounces, but they say the 1-ounce limit is too restrictive for recreational users).
However, it's the THC limits for drivers that are the most contentious. "That level is NOT supported by science and would subject patients to highly invasive blood testing, unnecessary confinement, and a criminal conviction that will haunt them for life," the activists' website says. For essentially these same reasons, prominent medical-marijuana patients Ric Smith and Vivian McPeak, director of Seattle Hempfest, have opposed the measure. Medical-marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt has also denounced I-502.
But other defense attorneys, including Alex Newhouse, say those concerns are overblown and that procedures for determining probable cause and intoxication would not change. "If a person is not driving erratically and they don't appear intoxicated," Newhouse says, "and there is nothing for the officer to see in plain view, there is no probable cause to investigate anything."
Back among the chardonnay- and cabernet-sipping crowd in Seattle, Holmes focused on the fact that legalizing marijuana statewide would put Washington at the "forefront of the debate about how we handle low-level drug crimes." Steves, for his part, was less serious: "I'm a travel writer. If I can't go somewhere, someone has to tell me why not—tell me why I can't go to a place called 'high.'"