Uncertainty clouds debate over marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 502
September 25, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
GreenLink Collective, a medical marijuana operation along Northwest Gilman Boulevard, reshaped attitudes and policies about marijuana in Issaquah last year, as patients and officials engaged in a long debate about access to a drug banned under federal law.
In November, Washington voters could further redraw the battle lines in the marijuana debate. Initiative 502 aims to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for recreational users. The proposal goes a step beyond a 1998 measure to legalize medical marijuana in Washington and could set a national precedent.
The initiative calls for sales at state-licensed stores of up to 1 ounce of marijuana — grown by state-licensed farmers. Marijuana-related tax revenue could pump as much as $1.9 billion into state coffers, if the federal government does not intervene.
I-502 calls for the state to set aside $227 million per year in marijuana taxes for health insurance and $113 million per year for drug research, prevention and treatment. The measure also outlines for local governments, such as Issaquah, to receive a slice of funding from the tax revenue.
In Issaquah, medical marijuana advocates and law enforcement officials raised questions about the proposal to legalize marijuana.
Some I-502 provisions concern GreenLink Collective operators Jake and Lydia George, leaders in the effort to establish medical marijuana rules in Issaquah.
The measure aims to set a threshold for driving under the influence of drugs at 5 nanograms of active marijuana component THC per milliliter of blood. Proponents said the level is analogous to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level for DUI arrests. Opponents said the 5 nanogram limit is not practical for medical users.
Other ballot measures
In addition to high-profile initiatives about charter schools, marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, voters must also decide a series of other ballot measures.
For the first time, ballots also include nonbinding state advisory votes.
What to know
“Patients have serious concerns about it and rightfully so,” Lydia George said. “We believe that’s the biggest flaw in 502. It does not account for medical users. That 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood is completely unrealistic for medical cannabis users.”
Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers said the introduction of another impairment-causing substance, albeit legal, could cause safety issues.
“We’re going to be introducing another substance that we’re going to be calling legal into our roadways,” he said. “Our data right now shows that alcohol is an issue, we’re now going to be introducing legal marijuana. That’s going to be extremely problematic for the driving population.”
In a recent analysis, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington staffers estimated King County spent about $35 million in the past decade — including about $17 million on prosecution and defense costs — to enforce existing marijuana laws. Statewide, the ACLU estimated the total at about $211 million.
Supporters said the money spent to enforce existing laws has done little to reduce marijuana use.
Alison Holcomb, campaign director for I-502 supporters New Approach Washington, said attitudes about marijuana changed as the stigma surrounding the drug waned in recent years.
“The issue that seems to be gaining the most traction is a change in people’s understanding, that when we’re talking about marijuana law reform, we’re really not talking about promoting marijuana use,” she said.
I-502 sponsors include Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Western Washington.
“The people that have come out and endorsed it and publicly support it appreciate the level of thinking and careful consideration that went into those public health and public safety concerns,” Holcomb said. “I think they appreciate that the system for producing marijuana is going to be very tightly regulated.”
Questions for marijuana users, federal government
Opposition to I-502 is not as organized or in lockstep as the pro-initiative side.
“I think they’ve got a lot of balls, quite frankly, calling it legalization,” said Steve Sarich, No on I-502 spokesman. “In order to legalize anything, you must remove all criminal penalties that make it illegal. They’re not doing that.”
Sensible Washington, a pro-legalization group based in Seattle, also opposes I-502. Instead, the nonprofit organization is focused on a 2013 ballot measure to legalize marijuana use for adults 21 and older.
Issaquah officials set rules for medical marijuana operations last year after a monthslong debate. Planners crafted rules meant to accommodate patients, police and suppliers.
“When we were writing this one that exists now, we had to kind of walk a tightrope between not being more strict than the state law, or if the state law was silent, then you had to also be careful,” said Dave Favour, a city planning manager involved in the Issaquah medical marijuana ordinance.
Other cities, including neighboring Sammamish, banned such gardens. King County adopted a more laissez-faire policy for medical marijuana operations and allowed medical marijuana operations to continue.
GreenLink remains the only licensed medical marijuana operation in Issaquah, although the municipal Development Services Department is considering a permit application from another patient group.
“The only real aspect of 502 that we see as beneficial is that it encourages state involvement in the regulation of cannabis,” Lydia George said. “We really, as a medical community, want to see that.”
How the federal government might react to marijuana legalization in Washington is another question in the debate.
Nationwide, 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana, but the drug remains illegal in all forms under federal law.
Washington is not alone in the effort to end the prohibition on recreational use. Colorado and Oregon also put marijuana legalization measures on the November ballot.
The issue surfaced on the presidential campaign trail Sept. 7, as GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said the states should decide whether to legalize the drug for medical purposes and the federal government should not interfere.
Washington Initiative 692, passed in 1998, allows people suffering from certain medical conditions to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana. Under state law, physicians can recommend — but not prescribe — the drug for patients.
Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the top federal prosecutor in Western Washington, Jenny Durkan, said U.S. Department of Justice rules prohibit the office from commenting on state legislation, such as I-502. Durkan also cannot comment on what steps the Department of Justice might take if the initiative passes.
In 2010, California voters rejected a measure to legalize marijuana. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said before the California vote that the federal government intended to “vigorously enforce” the federal ban on marijuana, regardless of state law.
I-502 supporters said the federal government is not likely to interfere if the measure passes.
“The federal government’s stance has been that as long as people are acting in clear and unambiguous compliance with those state laws, we’re not interested in expending federal resources to investigate and prosecute those people,” Holcomb said.