Initiative 502, to license and tax marijuana: a political, not a legal, fight
Seattle Times opinion columnist Bruce Ramsey argues that Initiative 502, to decriminalize marijuana, is questionable law but good lobbying.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Regarding marijuana, Washington is a forerunner state. In the last half of the 1990s voters here, and in Alaska, Oregon and California, were the first to accept cannabis as medical treatment. Now a third of the states allow it — and thoughts turn to the next step: legalization.
For those who want to do it, the question is: How?
Change federal law? Not enough push for that. Not yet. But state passage of medical-marijuana laws is also pushful, and the feds have given ground. And this year measures are on the ballot in Colorado and Washington to push the boundaries further.
The effort here, Initiative 502, would license and tax a private marijuana industry. Adults over 21 would be allowed 1 ounce bought from a licensed store. Users would be allowed to drive with marijuana's active ingredient, THC, in their blood in amounts less than 5 nanograms per milliliter.
Now that this is on the table, there is a sudden drawing back. For all the concern with prisons, gangs and deaths in Mexico, many users here don't feel a big risk. We have a marijuana industry, lawful or otherwise, and people in it worry about being put out of business.
Users can buy good product at $200 to $300 an ounce, either from the black market or a gray-market dispensary. In either case it is unregulated by the state Liquor Control Board, and a lot of people like it that way.
There is also concern about the DUI standard. Seattle marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt says regular users, especially medical patients, develop a tolerance. They can have more than 5 nanograms, much more, and drive safely. Under current law they won't pull a DUI unless a prosecutor can show they were impaired, but under I-502, the prosecutor doesn't have to prove that anymore. Five nanograms and you're done.
Defenders of the 5-nanogram standard use political arguments, not scientific ones. That is telling.
In the past two years, Hiatt backed initiatives that offered much fuller legalization than I-502, but the measures were too radical for donors and failed to make the ballot. This year's more cautious effort has attracted high-profile supporters: travel showman Rick Steves, former U.S. attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer, and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. Already I-502 has attracted $1.1 million in private money and has had no trouble collecting signatures.
For legalizers, the argument for I-502 is that it's on the ballot. And I think that's the right argument.
Holmes calls I-502 an effort of "starting a conversation" with the federal government. The measure conflicts with federal law, and the feds can have it thrown out in court if they want. But this is not a legal battle really. It is a political fight.
An initiative is a way for the people to say what they want. Their audience is their political leaders. If I-502 passes, politicians will take notice, particularly if it passes big. Some who have privately believed that marijuana ought to be legalized — and there are many, in both parties — will speak up. Others will develop a sudden interest.
If I-502 fails, particularly if it fails big, the opposite happens. Politicians will conclude that the people don't want it, and that the issue is off the table.
If you want a change, you have to get your issue on the table. I-502 does that. As law, it is flawed; as lobbying, it is about right. And lobbying is what it is.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com