Washington on the Brink of Legal Pot

Washington on the Brink of Legal Pot

By Chrisanne Grise 11/01/12

Washington is the likeliest state to legalize marijuana next week, those involved tell The Fix—despite some surprising opposition.

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Is this how it'll go on Nov. 6?
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It looks likely that Washington state will vote to legalize marijuana on November 6, but that doesn't mean the picture is entirely clear. Confusingly, some pot legalization advocates are actively campaigning against the proposed bill, I-502. The initiative would allow people over 21 to possess up to one ounce of weed for recreational use. But some critics say I-502 is too restrictive, as it doesn't allow for home growing other than for medical marijuana patients, and non-medical sales will only be permitted at state-licensed stores. A DUI provision that could allow convictions based on THC in a driver’s bloodstream also worries many pot smokers. “We now have anti-prohibitionists who are opposing anti-prohibitionists, which is kind of strange,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pot advocacy group NORML, tells The Fix. “It does feel rather odd when you find yourself attacked for having money and time spent on the efforts to legalize marijuana not by sheriffs, or other obvious opponents, but to have fellow anti-prohibitionists arguing for the status quo. Not many people could have predicted that.”

Those who back the bill offer many reasons for their support: “It’s my belief that one of the real tragedies is how misinformed young people and adults are about the dangers of marijuana,” Roger Roffman, a co-sponsor of I-502 and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells The Fix. “[The initiative] will earmark hundreds of millions of new tax dollars from regulation and selling marijuana to public education, prevention, treatment and research. It will provide data concerning the impact of this new law that the states can then use to adjust pricing and then tax policy to undercut the black market but also discourage use among young people.” Others are just tired of what they see as unfair consequences: "I'm voting for making marijuana legal because I've seen way too many of my friends get unfairly punished for getting caught with weed,” Jake, a Seattle resident in his twenties, tells us. “They haven't been able to get jobs because of it, and they punish possession way too harshly." 

While the no campaign is relatively uncoordinated due to its wildly differing motives, various groups are working hard. Douglas Hiatt of the marijuana reform group Sensible Washington calls the measure a “ridiculous waste of time and money” because it only makes an exception to existing laws and doesn't repeal any current laws banning pot. And Steve Sarich, of No on I-502, spoke to students about the dangers of the DUI provisions, saying, “They can take you to the hospital, they can take your blood. And if they find any trace of THC in your system, there goes your Pell grant, there goes your college.” More traditional prohibitionists naturally oppose I-502 too: “Don’t be fooled folks. There are people out there who will advocate the same arguments for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and every other kind of drug that is out there,” wrote Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson in an open letter that was endorsed by many other law enforcement officials in the state. Nelson added that legalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in crime and would essentially be surrendering the War on Drugs.

Despite the controversy, experts agree that Washington has the best chance of a yes vote of the three states with legalization measures on the ballot. Recent polls show residents favoring legalization by between five and 16 percentage points. “I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d have to throw a quarter on the table for Washington, because the polling is clearly indicating it’s the strongest,” says St. Pierre. “Particularly in the last two weeks before the election, the wheels usually fall off right off from underneath these things. And that is not happening [in Washington]. It is remaining strong.” He also cites mainstream political support for the measure including the mayor of Seattle, the entire city council and the sitting prosecuting attorney for Seattle. “I know a lot of people are frightened by the implications of it but I’m hoping that over time, people will see that we are failing so badly that we’ve got to be open to the possibility that a different way of preventing harm may in fact work better,” Roffman says. “I think that Washington state’s model offers just that approach. I don’t think any other state in its way of designing legalization has what is necessary, but this one does.”