Washingtonians are already voting on Initiative 502, which, if passed, will move marijuana policy in State of Washington into uncharted territory.
The Initiative would allow adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of solid marijuana-infused products, or 72-ounces of liquid, but only if they are legally purchased through a state-licensed store. Non-medical marijuana cultivated or sold outside the state licensing regime would remain illegal. The Initiative would not change the legal status of Washington State’s medical marijuana system. Perhaps the Initiative’s most controversial provision is allowing for DUI prosecutions of drivers whose blood contains more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of active THC metabolites. THC is a compound found in cannabis — it is to marijuana what alcohol is to Scotch.
I-502 also creates a framework for taxing legally-sold marijuana. The wording of the bill may be rather straightforward, but the implications of its passage are anything but. I-502 is without precedent anywhere in the United States. There is no “test-case” we can examine to predict the Initiative’s impact- we are the test-case. Depending on your perspective, that either makes us bold national leaders on an important moral issue, or guinea pigs poised to endure the awful side-effects of a poorly-constructed law.
Even if I-502 passes, law-abiding citizens may have to hold off on firing up that victory spliff.
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be become legal once the law is in effect, but the only legal places to buy it will be from state-licensed stores, and those won’t spring up overnight. Despite possession being legalized, trafficking cannabis outside the state’s licensing system will remain illegal, as will its public use or display. Businesses that maintain zero tolerance policies will still be able to fire employees who test positive for marijuana use. Imbibers should also be aware of the Initiative’s strict DUI provisions, which some critics claim could saddle users with a serious criminal charge even after weeks of abstention.
Anyone hoping the initiative would allow them to make some exotic additions to the backyard vegetable garden will also be disappointed: I-502 contains no provision whatsoever for would-be home growers. One local grower, who is critical of the Initiative, described it as a “government takeover,” claiming marijuana reform is “not legalization” until the plant can be freely cultivated.
Whatever Washington voters decide, marijuana will remain a banned Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. Federal drug enforcement has been unequivocal in opposition to any legalization efforts, and will likely sue the State of Washington to prevent implementation of the law. Whatever the courts decide, a lawsuit would likely leave many or even all provisions of I-502 blocked by injunction for the foreseeable future. Some have worried the Initiative’s passage could provoke a federal crackdown on marijuana in Washington. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who supports the law, concedes the feds won’t be happy if voters approve I-502, but believes they’ll ultimately back down, although other legal experts disagree.
Support for the Initiative among Seattle’s marijuana “industry” is tepid at best. Some feel I-502 was crafted to win over swing voters, and doesn’t reflect the practical reality of marijuana consumption in the State. Participants in both the quasi-legal medical community and the illegal black market have voiced concerns the Initiative will make their lives harder and expose them to legal trouble from federal authorities. Many users are particularly critical of the DUI provisions. The proposed legal limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of active THC metabolites is unscientific, and dangerously low according to critics, who claim it will render even casual smokers at perpetual risk of a charge. For many in this community, legal trouble comes from federal, rather than state employees, and they don’t see changes to state law as an effective way to shield their businesses from prosecution. As one former dispensary proprietor put it, “until marijuana is rescheduled, we’re just blowing smoke.”
Flaws and all, some patients and providers do support the Initiative, “I’m worried about medical marijuana patients being seen only as folks with minor inconveniences trying to claim a privileged access to marijuana,” said one local patient. Supporters point out that marijuana reform that doesn’t make concessions to the concerns of moderate voters doesn’t stand a chance of passing, and that despite the Initiative’s drawbacks, proponents of legalization have a moral duty to stop arrests and incarcerations stemming from prohibition.
Recent polling puts support for I-502 at 57%, with 34% opposed and 9% undecided. Even if that lead holds, don’t expect to wake up on November 7th to a city that smells like the bleachers at Cal Anderson on a warm summer day.
UPDATE — Wednesday, November 7, 2012: With I-502 cruising to victory, here’s what the Washington Liquor Control Board — the body charged with regulating and operating the state stores that will sell the drug — says: