Readers of StoptheDrugWar.org know that we've supported Initiative 502, a ballot measure to legalize and regulate marijuana in Washington State. I-502 has seen the strongest polling among the three legalization measures on state ballots this year, and has attracted significant mainstream support -- its chances of passing this Tuesday are good. The measure has also been the subject of controversy within the movement, particularly over a "per se" DUI provision some advocates believe will unfairly snare some users including patients. If you've followed our coverage of I-502 in Drug War Chronicle, including two of our recent features (here and here), you're familiar with all of this.
The reality facing Washington's patients today is that they may soon lose safe access to marijuana. The federal government is conducting a sustained attacked on the medical marijuana supply system in states across the nation, including Washington's, and local opponents have also stepped up their efforts. Legislation that would have authorized dispensaries, which could have provided some political cover for providers in Washington, was vetoed by the governor. Just this August the DEA sent 23 threat letters to dispensaries in Washington, only the latest of many moves against the industry. And there is no indication that DOJ under Obama or Romney will let up after the election, hope for that as we might. Washington a few years from now may have no medical marijuana supply system at all, if something doesn't change to shift the balance in our favor.
In Washington, the medical marijuana system is already a smaller one than available in some other medical marijuana states, despite courageous efforts by its leaders. Fewer patients qualify for legal protections under the list of conditions authorized under state law; it's likely that a smaller proportion of the state's residents live within easy geographic proximity to a dispensary as well. A 2011 report by See Change Strategy, prepared before the escalated federal and local crackdowns, found 11,000 dispensary customers in Washington, compared with 500,000 in California -- fewer than 1/8 as many, adjusted for the states' populations. Compared with Colorado, Washington's system -- again, before the crackdown -- served fewer than 1/14 as many people, adjusted for population.
But even those numbers understate the true depth of harm done to patients by the current system. All of us know people who suffer from conditions that could well be treatable using marijuana, but who may never find that out -- because they won't try it while it's illegal, or because their physicians aren't comfortable recommending marijuana without being able to guarantee the quality of the supply. Along with the current patients whose current safe access to marijuana may be slipping away, this other, possibly much larger group of potential patients, are also being badly harmed by the current situation -- by prohibition.
In the face of the federal onslaught, we believe a victory is needed at the ballot in order to shift the political dynamics in our favor. While some have suggested this could be accomplished in 2014, with a different initiative, that seems poorly thought out. Along with that meaning two more years and all that can happen in that time, 2014 is an off year election. That means that election turnout demographics will work against any such initiative, because off years favor the conservative voting base that leans against marijuana reform, over the liberal base that leans toward it. Funders witnessing a loss this year by a carefully regulated initiative, will in turn be unlikely to bet on a more loosely written one passing the next time. Progress of this scale -- enactment by a state's voters of actual legalization, not just medical marijuana or decriminalization, a historic first -- will probably be out of reach again until 2016. Public support for legalization in principle continues to grow and is now around 50% nationally. But while we believe support for legalization is likely to continue to grow, we don't know that it will and we can't take that for granted, especially if we don't win something. Legalization needs a victory this year.
We also believe that more people than just the currently recognized patients need the protections that legalization of possession -- and of legal sales, if I-502's state-licensed stores survive the likely federal opposition -- will provide for them. Washington had between 12,000 and 15,000 arrests per year between 2006 and 2010 -- 240,000 total marijuana arrests from 1986 to 2010. Those include minors who will still face age limit laws under I-502. But half or more of these arrests would clearly stop under the new law. A marijuana arrest is a big deal; in Washington it includes a fine and mandatory jail time in most cases. Defendants spend money on legal fees; they face restricted access to housing and college aid; they become disadvantaged in the job market.
I-502 won't undo all of this harm, but it will undo a lot of it. The characterizations opponents have made of the initiative as providing only "limited" or "modest" benefit are bogus. Even more strained is the claim some opponents have made that I-502 is not even legalization. But I-502 legalizes possession and sale of marijuana, albeit within a particular framework -- of course it's legalization. Some forms of legalization do more of what we want than other forms. Advocates make compromises, if they are effective, because they understand that that is what's needed to change things.
A final argument opponents have made is that I-502 is not legalization because federal law will preempt the state licensing system and could endanger other parts of the law. But while preemption is a risk, it's not a given -- no federal prosecutor has even tried to legally preempt a state's medical marijuana law, for example, in 16 years of them. And the same line of reasoning would say that any legalization bill passed by a state would really not be legalization, because federal prohibition is still in place. Which of course makes no sense -- and which would mean that initiatives some critics of I-502 have attempted to place on the ballot were not legalization either. Obviously our goal is to change both federal and state law.
It's possible we might have reached a different conclusion about I-502, if we were persuaded that DUI busts because of I-502 could happen commonly. But the critics have ignored key facts about the issue in order to make that case. The provision excludes the inactive but long-lingering marijuana metabolite, THC-COOH, from the reach of the law, counting only the shorter acting THC metabolite. It leaves in place the "probable cause" requirement on police of impairment being demonstrated before they can lawfully stop a driver and order a drug test. Police still need to spend time and money taking a driver to the station for a full drug test -- they can't just write a ticket and drop the drugs off for testing later.
Perhaps for these reasons, the 13 states that already have similar provisions have not seen perceptible increases in DUI busts. Yet movement opponents of I-502 scarcely acknowledge any of these points; a recent editorial by Sensible Washington treasurer Anthony Martinelli is a good example. Leaving them out skews the issue very badly. Conversely, however, one should admit that some marijuana users in Washington may get stuck with a DUI charge that they don't deserve -- and if you're one of those few people, it won't necessarily help you that there are only a few. There is a legitimate issue at stake with the DUI provision and it's a legitimate discussion to have. But it's a very different scenario than the doomsayers have presented.
It has been charged that movement opposition to I-502 is driven by the financial motivations of people profiting from medical marijuana under the current system. But while this is doubtless one thing that is going on, some of the critics of I-502 are respected advocates, including personal friends, who have never had a financial motivation for their activism. With all due respect to them, we believe they have badly misjudged the I-502 question, in at least the following ways: They have misidentified the primary threats facing medical marijuana patients. They have dramatically overestimated the realistic impact of the DUI provision -- ignoring relevant facts in order to do so. And they have underplayed the scope and significance that passage of I-502 will have, both legally and politically.
StoptheDrugWar.org endorses Initiative 502, a major step forward for the legalization movement, and a necessary step to help secure the rights of many thousands of marijuana users, including patients, and others.
[Washington's I-502 is one of three initiatives on state ballots to regulate rather than prohibit marijuana. We encourage all supportive parties, as we have before, to make phone calls to likely supportive voters in Colorado and Oregon -- for which a "phonebanking" web site has been provided by our allies -- for those in Washington to contact the campaign to volunteer in person. Links to the campaigns and to a "phonebanking" web site provided by our allies are linked to from our election resources web page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/election2012.]