Initiative 502 – Washington’s Marijuana Reform Provision Reviewed

With the 22nd Seattle Hempfest kicking off today and going through the weekend, Washington’s November 2012 Initiative 502 – which legalizes marijuana distribution, is getting lots of local press coverage. The buzz appears justified as polling data from July shows broad statewide support for I-502. Despite its support across the state, the initiative does have its critics. The anti-drug conservatives of Washington have come out against it, like Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna’s I-502 opposition because it undermines medicinal users and federal law. But conservatives aren’t the only groups opposing Initiative 502. Many local marijuana advocates are coming out against the proposal. These critics voice concern with specific aspects of the initiative – and how these aspects would fundamentally change the means of distribution, production and the prosecution of marijuana across Washington State.

When I learned about a groundswell of local marijuana champions against the November 2012 initiative claiming it would “legalize the production, possession, delivery and distribution of marijuana…to those 21 and older”, I decided to investigate their concerns, motivations and reasons for holding what appears a counterproductive position to their ultimate goal of cannabis decriminalization:

Background – Initiative 502 and New Approach Washington(NAW)

Initiative 502 is funded by the wealthy group New Approach Washington (NAW). NAW is made up of prominent northwest policy figures, including Katrina Pflaumer, a former U.S. attorney, Robert Alsdorf, a retired Superior Court judge; and Anne Levinson, former deputy Seattle Mayer. Their endorsement of I-502 rests on their belief “decriminalizing marijuana would allow our state and local governments to refocus limited resources on more important priorities than arresting, jailing and trying adult marijuana users. Similarly… the initiative would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars that are currently flowing to criminal organizations each year to legitimate businesses.” (I-502 proponents wiki)

By shifting the modes of distribution from growers running opaque indoor grow operations to legitimate Washington farmers whose product would be regulated and purchased by the State Liquor Control Board, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) forecasts revenue growth would be as high as$560 million a year from new taxes, a figure twice what NAW originally flouted. These are huge potential benefits from a state budget perspective.

Initiative 502 – Cannabis community opposition explained

Many marijuana advocates are unhappy about the 5 ng/l THC limit imposed on drivers in Washington if I-502 passes. KPLU covered the issue in a piece this year debating legal driving limit standards for pot. The article sites some experts who see the limit of 5 ng/l to far too low. Yet the NAW’s reasoning for maintaining this strict driving limit was to build broad bipartisan support for the initiative among conservative voters who would not have accepted marijuana legalization without a legal driving limit on THC levels for adults. Given the polling data from late July, these conciliatory measures appear to have achieved enough consensuses to win statewide support for the initiative.

The more cogent argument opposing I-502 is in the initiatives foolhardy attempt to override federal law. Seattle Attorney and marijuana advocate Jeffrey Steinborn says passing the initiative would amount to “a law enforcement sting.” Steinborn writes a convincing justification against I-502 in The Stranger. Based on the Justice Departments’ history of subpoenaing marijuana registration records from states advocating similar marijuana commerce regulations, Steinborn sees I-502 pitting Washington state law against federal law. Further, Steinborn sees the plan as a means to “entice those engaged in cannabis commerce to put their names on a list that must be turned over upon the demand of any federal agency” and proposes to “entice state employees to ignore the warnings of our United States Attorneys and face the full spectrum of prosecution.”

This argument falls short when confronted with the US Attorney’s lack of action prosecuting Washington citizens under the statewide dispensary system currently in place. When Gov. Gregoire sent the details of the state’s medicinal marijuana legislation to the Department of Justice for review, the DOJ responded they would prosecute all Washington citizens absconding federal law. To date they have yet to do this. Steinborn’s claim the initiative would “entice” cannabis distributors and marijuana state employees is disingenuous and implies that NAW is proposing the initiative as a means of entrapping its citizens in federal statute. Neither of these implications are true.

More significant about Initiative 502 – and a point Jeffrey Steinborn fails to mention – is that the initiative is the first state law – if passed – to fully sanction marijuana use and sanction regulated US distribution centers. I-502 is more than a state revenues boost and lower costs from less incarceration – it also serves as important new precedence in the legal battle to undo federal marijuana law. Washington is also not the only state proposing legalization in fall ballots – both Colorado and Oregon voters will be voting on similar legalization measures in 2012.

As marijuana patients, advocates and distributors converge on Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle for music, entertainment and speeches from all spectrums of the marijuana advocacy community – the debate over Initiative 502 will surely be a combustible and prominent topic. Organizers’ of the event decided not to side one way or the other on the initiative – and proponents of the initiative will have booths set up along with staunch I-502 critics.

Keith Stroup, founder of the national marijuana-advocacy organization (NORML), sees minor dispute within the cannabis community as detrimental to the movement: “We are at a tipping point in the marijuana-legalization effort,” he said. It’s for this reason the passage of Initiative 502 in November 2012 – despite its shortcomings – will be a step in the right direction for the United States and Washington State.

NORML’s comprehensive look at the research and science studying THC blood levels and effects on driving ability: http://norml.org/library/item/cannabis-and-driving-a-scientific-and-rational-review

Posted in Initiative 502, marijuana, Washington State law.

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