SeattleTimes / Bruce Ramsey / 09,14,2010
Marijuana is moving toward legalization. Fourteen states now allow it as medicine, which has changed people's view of it. The image of a user is no longer Cheech and Chong, but grandma.
"The states that were the first to legalize medical marijuana will be the first to legalize marijuana more broadly," predicts cannabis activist Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Washington will be one of the first states. But how to do it? Legalizers don't agree.
Earlier this year the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington refused to support Initiative 1068. The ACLU supports legalization, but it wants regulations, and I-1068 didn't have any. It would have removed criminal penalties only. The ACLU's opposition curdled the initiative's fundraising, and it didn't make the ballot.
Last Sunday, the ACLU held a forum on legalization. Nadelman and others were here from Washington, D.C. Local organizers of I-1068 were not invited.
Their disagreement is not whether cannabis would be regulated. Of course it would be regulated. Like beer and wine, there would be rules about how it could be marketed, who could sell it and who could buy it. And it would be taxed — heavily.
Why leave the regs and taxes out of the ballot measure? Partly because initiatives are for simple questions. Details belong in the Legislature. The I-1068 folks, who call themselves Sensible Washington, had an additional reason.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law. If a state sets up a law permitting it, the feds can ask a federal court to throw that law out. The Obama administration could ask a court to throw out Washington's law permitting cannabis as medicine. It has chosen not to, but it could do it.
If Washington voters passed a law permitting cannabis as a consumer product, the feds would be inclined to attack it. And if that law also included repeal of criminal penalties, both could fall and the criminal penalties return.
And that, says Seattle attorney Douglas Hiatt, the head of Sensible Washington, is the reason to do repeal separately. Repeal, by itself, creates nothing to attack. It simply erases. The feds could still attack any regulations, but the repeal would stand. Hiatt, who was a history major, discovered that's how the legalizers of alcohol did it 78 years ago. In November 1932, the people approved Initiative 61, which repealed all the state laws against alcohol. The rules and regulations came later, from the Legislature.
"It was a two-step process," Hiatt says. "And it was brilliant. It remains the only tried and true way to repeal prohibition."
Alison Holcomb, the ACLU's drug-policy director here, argues that legalization challenges the federal government no matter how it is done. The defensible position, she says, is "to set up a well-regulated system." Hoclomb says "a broad coalition" plans to run a legalize-and-regulate cannabis initiative here in 2012.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, plans to introduce a bill in January that would protect medical users from arrest, which current law does not. Kohl-Welles wants full legalization, but she told Sunday's forum, "We have to address what's possible."
Hiatt thinks legalization is possible now, by popular initiative. He's planning to run I-1068 again, in 2011.
"We're not changing anything in the substance of the initiative," he says.