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After Legalization, What's Next? Attorney Who Helped Free the Weed in Washington State Talks Strategy

An excerpt from the new book, "Legalized It!"

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Bienenstock: With medical marijuana regulation still in flux, why move even further? 

Holmes: At one time in the city of Seattle, we had more medical marijuana dispensaries than we had Starbucks stores, and I think that was an eyebrow-raiser for a lot of people. Clearly, there was an oversupply for what real medical marijuana users needed, and consequently there was a lot of disbelief and cynicism about the medical marijuana industry. And if you’re willing to take that straight on, I’d say the reason that there is so much gaming of the system is because prohibition itself is wrong. People need to use marijuana medicinally, but they also want to use it recreationally—and maybe instead of criminalizing that behavior, we can find a way to regulate it the way we’ve done with alcohol.

Bienenstock: And you can make that case without in any way undercutting the utility of medical marijuana? By just simply extending that argument to its logical conclusion…

Holmes: Exactly. In fact, legalization gives those recreational users who are gaming the system a way to no longer erode the validity of real medical marijuana patients. 

Bienenstock: As a candidate in 2008, and even after taking office, President Obama and his administration promised, in essence, to treat medical marijuana as a states’ rights issue. Has that promise been broken?

Holmes: No, I think that the Obama administration, post-reelection, will now have a responsible dialogue between state and federal officials about both I-502 and medical marijuana. I think they recognize we’re in the middle of this sea change: that the status quo is not going to stay that way, and we’ll be evolving into some new regulatory regime.

Everyone expects that medical marijuana will continue to be tolerated, and we’ll all come together to find a way to make it work more smoothly. At the same time, I believe that we’ll have a really high-level, intelligent discussion about how I-502 can actually enhance public safety. There’s no way they’re going to simply ignore a majority of the voters of this state saying, “We want to try something else, because what we’re doing now is not working.” 

Bienenstock: The coalition you’ve put together in support of I-502 is beyond impressive—I would call it historic. How did that coalition come about, and what advice can you offer those in other states trying to replicate that kind of high-level support?

Holmes: It started with a core group of very experienced and knowledgeable people—primarily lawyers—who got together and asked, “How do we substitute a sane and rational policy in place of the failed policy of prohibition?” They were looking at what had happened before in other states, like Prop. 19 in California as well as previous efforts here in Washington, and asking, “What will work?”

From the core group, we spread that circle further and further and brought more people into the fold, until it just started building on itself. So now we’ve got every elected official in Seattle supporting I-502. We’ve got former federal prosecutors and FBI agents on board. The Seattle Times published a full-page editorial endorsing I-502, later joined by the Spokane Spokesman-Review in eastern Washington—which means both of the state’s major newspapers are on board. That’s a sea change. That’s a huge shift in public opinion.

In fact, at their recent debate, both candidates for King County sheriff not only said they support the initiative; each one tried to show that they’re more in favor than their opponent. All of which is the result of just steady hard work, dialogue, and putting out a very thoughtful proposition based on a very deliberate process.