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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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This is a democracy, which means even a great idea needs to get 50 percent of the vote plus one. So we asked ourselves: What are the voters concerned about? How do we address federal/state issues? How do we address taxation? At what age should people be allowed to buy it? What about driving while stoned? And I just can’t emphasize enough how a thoughtful, collaborative effort over time is the way to go. 

Bienenstock: Do other politicians and elected officials often come up to you in private and say, “Oh, I agree with you 100 percent, but I can’t state that publicly”? And if so, do you see that changing as well?

Holmes: That is absolutely changing. At the start of my term, a number of them said, “Yes, this should be legalized,” but then either said, “We have higher priorities to address” or “It’s just not quite ready.” But that has remarkably shifted, and I’m seeing more and more leaders saying, “Yes, it’s time to do something different.” 

Bienenstock: When we look at marijuana, whether medical or recreational, there are a lot of different arguments to be made for this kind of policy change. Which do you find most effective?

Holmes: In a time where we have budget cuts and a deep recession, people are acutely aware that we can’t waste public resources. Ask people if the government should spend money telling adults what to do in their private lives, and most will say no. On the other hand, those same people will agree that government must be concerned first and foremost with public safety. So you have to reorient the debate and say that prohibition has already failed to meet that goal, and we need to find an answer. When you have the facts all laid out, it’s really hard to dispute that we need a new approach.  

Bienenstock: It’s no secret that I-502 has engendered some opposition from within the existing marijuana-law reform community in Washington State. How do you explain that? How do you address a constituency that is obviously in favor of legalization but expresses specific concerns about I-502? And what can reformers in other states looking to make this kind of change do when faced with this same dynamic?

Holmes: Well, I think the first important reminder is to be respectful and always acknowledge that I-502 is built upon lessons learned by the reform movement. You know, you ask 10 reformers why they don’t like 502 and they’ll give you 10 different reasons. There’s nothing you can do in any initiative—including ours—that’s going to anticipate all of those arguments and make everyone happy. Maybe that’s because they’re so used to fighting a bad government policy that they’re automatically skeptical of anything that looks like a government solution. I don’t know what else to say other than it’s a phenomenon that has always left me scratching my head.

I’ve never opposed any other marijuana-law reform initiative in this state—and if they had gotten something on the ballot, I would’ve been in there supporting it. So the fact that they don’t have an alternative on the ballot and are still opposing I-502—to me, that’s indefensible. I hear all of their arguments, and they’re all based on speculation, or on the “perfect being the enemy of the good.” And at some point, they have to recognize that they were part of this effort and not oppose it. Because I would love to have them at the table to help us work on implementation. Instead, they are basically checking out—and it’s unfortunate, because they’ll have let the movement move on past them while they were stuck in time.