“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Historically, the proponents of marijuana reform in America have hailed from among the private citizenry. This is not the case in Washington today. New Approach Washington, the group sponsoring the marijuana ballot measure Initiative 502, is comprised mostly of lawyers, physicians, and even one local celebrity travel writer and long-time reform advocate, Rick Steves. The man at the top of the list of I-502 sponsors is Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
“I never in a million years believed, back in the campaign in 2009 or even as early as January of 2010, that we would be on track to legalize,” Holmes told the Capitol Hill Times. “I stopped prosecuting simple possession cases as soon as I took office. I dismissed all the pending cases and we found that the world didn’t stop turning.”
The decision to halt prosecution of misdemeanor possession cases wasn’t activism on Holmes’s part. Eight years ago, the people of Seattle voted in favor of Initiative 75, which called for the Seattle police department and attorney’s office to treat the possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana as their lowest priority of enforcement and prosecution. While it technically remains illegal to possess marijuana in Seattle, police and city lawyers have effectively turned their attention to trafficking. 2004′s I-75 was framed as a prioritization of gang prosecution and a way for the SPD to tighten its belt in difficult economic times.
While the preferred narrative in favor of today’s I-502 is more complex than that, Pete Holmes and New Approach Washington aren’t shy about using it to take a tough stance on violent crime, especially that which is connected to drug cartels operating in Seattle. In April of this year, police performed a massive sting operation throughout western Washington, including King County, which saw the arrest of over 40 people associated with the operations of La Sinaloa. La Sinaloa is a Mexican drug cartel tied to several murders and other felonies in Washington state. The anti-cartel language of those who sponsor and support I-502 isn’t just to put a fine point on the benefits of reform, it’s also a key concept many Seattle and Tacoma city officials hope will stop intervention by the federal government if I-502 passes.
“I believe that the federal government’s biggest concern is with the large-scale transport of illegal narcotics, especially up the I-5 corridor. I think before they do anything, they’ll sit down, in good faith, with the state of Washington and help determine whether 502, as we believe, provides law enforcement with an additional tool, an economic tool, to take away the drug market from illegal cartels,” Holmes said.
As in every state that allows medical marijuana dispensaries, Washington has seen its fair share of pressure from federal law enforcement concerning marijuana in the past year. In late August, 23 medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington received letters warning them to close down or invite raids by the Drug Enforcement Agency. A similar event took place in Colorado this year with little incident, but there is a significant degree of resistance in California where many dispensaries refuse to close. The DEA has been targeting dispensaries that are within 1,000 feet of a school on the premise that such dispensaries risk exposing children to marijuana.
Seemingly in direct reference to this policy, I-502 states that the legal retailers of recreational marijuana would not be permitted to open their doors within 1,000 feet of “the perimeter of the grounds of any elementary or secondary school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, or library, or any game arcade admission to which is not restricted to persons aged 21 years or older.” Given the great number of public and private schools, numerous public parks, and other elements of Seattle’s increasing density, the likelihood of a legal marijuana dispensary in urban areas like downtown and Capitol Hill is questionable.
Also up for debate is the tax revenue potential in I-502. Recent analysis of legalization via I-502 suggests the possibility of hundreds of millions of dollars per year in windfall for the state, but these estimates are fraught with uncertainty. It is unknown how many new dispensaries would open, how many customers they would have, and whether the federal government will intervene in the process. That said, legalization would still be a money-saving effort, if only to reduce state spending on marijuana law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union released a document recently claiming that Washington spent approximately $211 million on marijuana enforcement in the past decade. It has also been a decade during which police departments throughout Washington have struggled with budget woes and the resulting under-staffing amid an increase in violent crime.
New Approach Washington doesn’t see I-502 as an end in itself, though. As of today, no state in the union has legalized recreational marijuana use outright, so the passage of I-502 would be as much a symbolic victory as a concrete change in law enforcement.
“If reducing the harm of marijuana use is your goal, and I think that’s everyone’s goal, then prohibition has been a miserable failure,” Holmes said. “So, can we actually change government and actually have it work better? That’s what’s really at stake here, not just marijuana. Can we fundamentally get the government to stop doing something that’s a failure?”
Initiative 502 will appear on this year’s November ballot. Voter registration for in-person voting ends on October 29 and mail-in voter registration or change of address is due on October 8.