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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!"

Editor's Note: The following is an interview with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who was one of the leading proponents of the I-502 initiative in Washington State that legalized marijuana in the 2012 election. The text is excerpted from David Bienenstock's new book,  Legalized It! Inside Colorado and Washington State's Historic Votes to End Marijuana Prohibition and Other Tales of Adventure from a Fully Embedded High Times Reporter.

In 2003, Seattle voters approved Initiative 75, which instructed police to make marijuana their lowest law-enforcement priority. But many cops still felt free to ignore the clearly expressed will of the voters and carry on with the status quo. So in 2009, when Pete Holmes ran for public office for the first time, he pledged that under his watch, the city would seek zero prosecutions for possession. And he’s used his discretion as Seattle’s City Attorney top to keep that promise every day since taking office.

Now he’s gone a step further, as one of the leading proponents of Washington State’s historic I-502 campaign to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for all adults 21 and over, while also creating a regulatory framework for commercial cultivation and sales. On November 6, the initiative passed with 55 percent in favor.

Holmes got involved with the I-502 campaign after taking part in an effort to create a set of statewide regulations for medical marijuana that was eventually vetoed by Governor Christine Gregoire, who cited fears that the federal government could prosecute state employees charged with regulating dispensaries. Full legalization, Holmes reasoned, would favorably reframe the debate for reformers, while offering existing medical marijuana patients the best protection possible.

“I think legalization for recreational use actually enhances medical marijuana users and their safe access to cannabis,” Holmes told High Times. “I-502 does not touch any of Washington State’s existing medical marijuana laws. For instance, if you are an authorized medical marijuana user, you can still grow your own, which you cannot do for recreational use. Medical marijuana patients will also get real arrest protection, which they don’t have today. Previously, as a medical marijuana user, if you were stopped with an ounce of marijuana in your possession, all you have is an affirmative defense at trial. You were still subject to arrest, you still had to hire a lawyer, you still had to go through all of that.”

David Bienenstock: Why are most politicians still so far behind the will of the people when it comes to marijuana? And do you see that changing for the better?

Pete Holmes: We’re actually seeing a sea change on this issue—not only here in progressive Seattle, but all across the country. As you well know, polling indicates that more and more Americans recognize that prohibition as a policy towards marijuana has failed, and they want to see something done about it. Because addressing a public health issue with criminal law is just simply ineffective.

Here in Washington, both gubernatorial candidates and both attorney-general candidates opposed I-502, but said they would enforce it if passed by the voters. So I think the mainstream political parties still look at marijuana policy—not in Seattle, but across the state—as a little bit dangerous. That’s a reaction to something that has been labeled criminal for so long that it’s difficult for even progressive minds to wrap their heads around a new system where we take this once illegal commodity and regulate it responsibly. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that we’ve got the public behind us, and we’re trying to get the leaders to follow.