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June 22, 2011 at 5:46 PM

Cannabinoid Thoughts

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

A group, New Approach Washington, has field a marijuana legalization initiative in Washington, and the Times has endorsed their effort. It is a more moderate measure than the one on the streets collecting signatures for the past few months, Initiative 1149. That one is simple and radical: it erases all state law about marijuana for adults over 18. The rationale for the radical one is that by creating no new law, it gives the federal government nothing to attack in court. It is makes the state say to the feds, “If you want marijuana to be illegal, fine; you enforce it. We’re not going to help.”

There’s an elegance to that, and legal logic; but it’s difficult to sell politically. In itself, it creates no regulation. The organizers say the regulation can come later. But it isn’t part of the ballot measure, and that bothers some people. So does the age of 18. Why have 18 for marijuana when you have 21 for beer?

I asked the organizer of 1149 about that. He said that legally, it was much easier to do it that way because of the way state law is written. And besides, he thought 18 old enough.

The new measure sets the age for buying marijuana at 21. It authorizes the state to license growers, processors and retailers, just as Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ medical marijuana bill, which the governor substantially vetoed, did. The new measure limits the amount an individual can possess at one ounce of smoking cannabis and larger amounts of cream, brownies, etc.

The new bill also does not legalize growing your own.

Why not? One man at the press conference wanted to know. What was the matter with growing it? The answer was that the bill was trying to treat marijuana the same as liquor, and the law does not allow you to distill your own Scotch.

That wasn’t the real answer. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes had described the bill as handing marijuana “exactly how we’ve handled alcohol,” and in some aspects that is true. The age of 21, for example. But the bill limits possession to one ounce, and the liquor law doesn’t do that with vodka or gin. Why limit possession to one ounce?

I asked Alison Holcomb, the spokeswoman, about that. The reason is political. Marijuana legalization is new. No other state has done it. “We are trying to create some boundaries,” she said, in order to make the initiative more palatable and less scary to people. With liquor, people are not making it next door, in the basement--and some people don't like the idea of having a marijuana grow next door in the basement. And with liquor, Holcomb said, “it’s really not a big deal if you buy gallons and gallons of it.” But “when Washington is the only state in the union to legalize,” she said, it would be a big deal if our marijuana stores allowed somebody, perhaps from Oregon or Idaho, to buy pounds and pounds of it. The presumption would be that he was aiming to resell it across state lines. Therefore, a limit of one ounce. It’s to deflect political criticism.

Douglas Hiatt, spokesman for Initiative 1149, was annoyed at the new effort. Its moderation is “poll-driven,” he said. Because the new measure sets up the state as regulator, he said, is much more vulnerable to a challenge in federal court, whereas I-1149, which sets up nothing, is legally clean. Probably he is right about both things. But if 1149 can’t get on the ballot—and it looks that way—it doesn’t matter. If people declined to vote for it because they thought it too radical, its virtues also wouldn’t matter.

I go back to the principle Tim Eyman told me years ago. All initiatives are lobbying. Fundamentally, this is not a legal fight. It is a political fight. The important thing is for the people of a state—this state, any state—to vote yes for legalization, however defined. The vote is the thing. That will set up a fight, and you need to set it up before you can win it.

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