Uncertainty clouds debate over marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 502

September 25, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Marijuana sits in a jar held by Lydia George in 2011 at GreenLink Collective. File

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.

  • Initiative 1185 — The measure backed by anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman aims to reinforce existing state law requiring any tax increases imposed by the Legislature to receive approval from a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber or approved by a majority of voters. The measure also aims to require majority legislative approval for additional or increased fees.
  • Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution 8221 — State legislators proposed a constitutional amendment to implement Commission on State Debt recommendations regarding Washington’s debt limit.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 8223 — State legislators proposed a constitutional amendment to address investments by the University of Washington and Washington State University.

For the first time, ballots also include nonbinding state advisory votes.

  • Advisory Vote 1 — The measure concerns a business-and-occupation tax deduction for certain financial institutions’ interest on residential loans.
  • Advisory Vote 2 — The measure concerns expiration of a tax on possession of petroleum products and lowering the rate.

What to know

Read the initiatives, plus supporting and opposing arguments, in the 2012 General Election Voters’ Guide at www.secstate.wa.gov.

“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.

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7 Responses to “Uncertainty clouds debate over marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 502”

  1. MsCannabistan on September 26th, 2012 9:23 am

    Whence it passes MOST dispensaries lose their customers as who would bother with an authorization (how low in price are they NOW?) when you can buy the stuff at a state store down the street? Ms. Greenlink is worried about the loss of her illegal “business”… and that is why she and MOST of the other dispensary owners are against I502.. they see the end of their illegal businesses.
    VOTE YES I502…
    do this and 10,000 people will NOT be arrested next year. Pretty lame to have patients whining about a DWI when 10,000 folks get arrested for pot in our state each year – mostly people of color – which is I SUSPECT why the issue gets little attention.
    VOTE YES I502 and end this insanity…

    the ENTREPRENEURS who have made MONEY these last two years off the unregulated market in marijuana will still be ENTREPRENEURS and they will get themselves involved in the new businesses. Don’t mourn their loss.
    VOTE YES I502!!

  2. PhilDeBowl on September 26th, 2012 10:18 am

    The “War on Drugs©” has failed because it is based on lies and goes against our belief in personal freedom to choose what we put on/in our bodies,and it goes against scientific fact and personal experience. We as a society can continue to do what doesn’t work,some call that the definition of insanity,or we can try a new approach.
    IF MerryWanna is a problem for you DON’T USE IT.

  3. Esoteric Knowledge on September 26th, 2012 10:48 am

    LOL: Roadside test. Problems, questions and hysteria alleviated.

  4. Over50voter on September 26th, 2012 4:17 pm

    Steve sarich is a hack. He just does not want to lose his monopolistic status as a collective. Legalization is the right thing to do . If an adult can handle liquor, handling weed is a cakewalk. I would rather have drivers on weed than booze any day. Drivers on weed are safer, slower and do not get road rage.

    Maybe we can get rid of the rent a cop gestapo sheriff’s officers that the cities rent.

  5. Daniel Zellmer on September 27th, 2012 10:03 am

    PLEASE VOTE!!!! may I suggest voting NO on 502 BECAUSE prices are certain to rise, mainly due to taxation without representation..the cost of a gram will be 20 to 30$, hardly affordable to MM patients..personally I would LOVE to see grass legal BUT I doubt in my lifetime it will ever be AND I live in the territories of the United States of America which it is still a Class 1 controlled substance with severe reluctance to change… So PLEASE VOTE and remember the devil you know is a lot better than Mr Romney,or the devil you do not know..I remain,Daniel Zellmer email me at wingoverfarm@gmail.com

  6. Robert Wallace on September 27th, 2012 11:32 am

    The police chief uttered one false hood,”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.” We are not introducing anything. It’s already there has been for a very long time.

  7. Human embryos to have human rights from first heartbeat? | Mike Bishop's initiatives on September 27th, 2012 3:27 pm

    […] Uncertainty clouds debate over marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 502 Initiative 1185 — The measure backed by anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman aims to reinforce existing state law requiring any tax increases imposed by the Legislature to receive approval from a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber or approved by a … Read more on Issaquah Press […]

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