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WA Initiative to Legalize Pot Enjoys Popularity at the Polls -- So Why Are Some Pot Activists Against It?

Polls show a growing majority of voters support I-502, but a drugged driving provision is drawing criticism from within the drug reform movement.
 
 
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A little more than a month out from Election Day, Washington state's I-502 marijuana legalization, regulation, and taxation initiative looks to be well-positioned yet to actually win at the ballot box, with powerful supporters, lots of money, and a healthy lead in the polls. But it's not a done deal yet.

Sponsored by New Approach Washington, I-502 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over, but not allow them to grow their own. Instead, it would create a scheme of licensed, taxed, and regulated commercial marijuana cultivation, processing, and retail sales under the eye of the state liquor control board. Medical marijuana patients are exempted from its provisions.


I-502 polled at 57% support two weeks ago, up three points from a June poll. Meanwhile, opposition to the initiative is declining in those polls, from 37% in June to 34% this month.

The good numbers are due at least in part to the powerful list of endorsements, which include not only the usual drug reform suspects, but also labor, civil rights, and children's and retiree's groups, the state Democratic and Green parties, an increasing list of the state's most-read newspapers, including the Seattle Times and the Olympian, both of which endorsed the initiative within the last week. Also on board are figures are mainstream criminal justice figures like Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and former US Attorney for the Western District of Washington John McKay, the man who prosecuted Canadian "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery (who also endorses the initiative).

Money helps, too, and I-502 has it. The campaign has raised over $3 million so far, including $715,000 from the Drug Policy Action Network, the lobbying and campaign arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, $821,000 from Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform Daddy Warbucks Peter Lewis, and $450,000 from Seattle-based travel writer Rick Steves. That means that although it has already spent $1 million on early ad buys, it still has $2 million in the bank, and it's still fundraising.

The initiative has drawn some criticism internally within the drug reform movement, including some outright opposition, mainly for a drugged driving provision. Under I-502's language, drivers caught driving with more than 5 nanograms of the longer-acting THC metabolites in their blood can be convicted, per se, of Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID). Supporters point out that the initiative excludes the long-acting THC-COOH metabolite from the reach of the DUID provision, and that police are prohibited from ordering blood tests unless there is probable cause to suspect that a driver is impaired. They also argue that language addressing driving is necessary to make the initiative palatable to those voters in the state whose summers don't revolve around Hempfest.

New Approach Washington is being cautious.

"You know it's going to be close, very close, everything seems to be going well, but we're still six weeks out," said campaign director Allison Holcomb, counseling against complacency.

"We definitely will have money to do some paid media advertising, but fundraising will go on until the last moment," said Holcomb. "We've raised $2 million from big donors, but also lots with local support. People with no connection to drug policy or marijuana policy are stepping forward. They get that we're not promoting marijuana use, but better marijuana laws. It's all starting to click."

Aside from the intramural criticisms, Holcomb said there is little organized opposition.

"There are about a half dozen law enforcement and treatment and prevention folks who make the rounds and debate with us, but in terms of organizations launching a campaign against the initiative, we're really not seeing that," she said. "We view that as a testament to the drafting and endorsements we're picking up."

And while the intra-movement opposition is loud and boisterous, there may be less to it than meets the eye, said Holcomb.

"It doesn't seem to be that much of a problem," she said, although she acknowledged it had been "upsetting" on a personal level. "When we are at events like Hempfest or the High Times Cannabis Cup and have our table, people come up and express their concerns and ask questions. There is a lot of confusion within the grassroots, but we can clear up that confusion. A lot of the concern is built around fear of the unknown, too, but if you can get off the Internet and off Facebook, you can talk to people and address their concerns."

Two of the most prominent movement opponents of the initiative told the Chronicle it was hopelessly flawed, but the campaign and a raft of national drug reform groups begged to differ.

"This isn't legalization -- in order to legalize you have to remove all the criminal penalties, but this actually adds them in the form of DUIDs," said Steve Sarich, a medical marijuana businessman and advocate who spokesman for Vote No on I-502, a movement group opposing the initiative.

One of the loudest opponents of the initiative, Seattle defense attorney and Sensible Washington co-founder Douglass Hiatt. Sensible Washington twice tried to get a more sweeping legalization initiative on the ballot, but came up short. It is already planning another try for next year. "It doesn't legalize hemp or marijuana, but instead creates a narrow exception for possession of up to an ounce by adults over 21," Hiatt claimed.

Sarich's and others' fears notwithstanding, the experience of other states that have adopted per se DUID laws does not suggest a massive wave of arrests as a result. A chart compiled by NORML looks at what has happened in 14 states that have adopted such laws, some of them "zero tolerance," some of them with specified per se levels. No data was available for four states, DUIDs declined in five of them and increased in five others. In most cases, the percentage increase was under 10%. The number of marijuana DUIDs is smaller than the actual DUID numbers by some unknown percentage because the states do not differentiate between marijuana and other drug DUIDs.

National groups such as NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition told the Chronicle the initiative represents the best chance of winning a legalization vote and they are standing strong behind it despite concerns about some of the provisions. The Drug Policy Alliance, for its part, has put its political action committee's money where its mouth is.

"We support I-502 and hope it passes," said MPP spokesman Morgan Fox. "MPP generally will stand behind any initiative that results in fewer arrests, and I-502 will mean roughly 13,000 fewer arrests for adult possession. Passage of this initiative will also be a tremendous step forward in marijuana policy reform nationally and will help to show the federal government that prohibition is no longer what the public wants."

MPP is not putting money into the campaign, but is supporting it logistically and through getting the word out to its members, Fox said. Like many other supporters, it is endorsing I-502 despite reservations about the DUID limits.

"While per se DUID limits are not supported by our current scientific knowledge and MPP would prefer not to see them included in I-502, it is necessary to include some sort of provision to address impaired driving," Fox said. "It is more than likely that the negative effects of this particularly law will be far less severe than some may fear."

"We prefer proposals that include the right to grow your own and we certainly oppose per se DUID standards, but if you're asking whether we would support an initiative that has made the ballot, those flaws become insignificant compared to the benefits for all of us should this pass," echoed NORML founder Keith Stroup. "The NORML board of directors unanimously supported this."

"We can't win just with the support of the stoners," Stroup continued. "If you had listened to the Hempfest debates, you would have been convinced the community was divided, but to win, we have to have a majority of voters, not a majority of Hempfest attendees. The campaign did extensive polling and found that if they included personal cultivation and no DUID, they couldn't win," the silver-haired reform veteran argued.

"All the surveys show you aren't likely to win the non-pot smokers unless you can satisfy them that we are not unleashing a significant number of impaired drivers on them," Stroup noted. "That may not be a rational fear, but as we saw in the Proposition 19 exit polling, one of the main reasons people opposed was the concern about impaired drivers. Of course, that presumes stoners wouldn't drive if this didn't pass, but millions are driving every day and most have no problems."

"Look," said Stroup, "I admire this campaign. They have succeeded in getting the most establishment support for any legalization proposal ever. You have the individual who was responsible for prosecuting marijuana cases in Seattle sponsoring this initiative. The reason they are able to get establishment support is that they took establishment positions. Despite the provisions we don't really like, we totally support I-502, just like we support the initiatives in Colorado and Oregon."

The issue of impaired driving is going to continue to plague legalization efforts, Stroup said, and the movement has to figure out a response.

"One way or another, we'll be dealing with DUID provisions in any legalization proposal coming down the road," he said. "We're going to have to accept some DUID provisions, but hopefully we convince people that per se is not necessary."

"Flawed as it is, I-502 represents that best chance we've seen in this country to legalize, tax, and control marijuana," said former Seattle police chief and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition member Norm Stamper. "That per se DUID provision is causing a whole lot of us some heartburn, but on the other hand, this initiative gives us the best chance to really test the federal government's clout. If it passes, it's on a collision course with the feds, and we need to pass this in a very strategic and powerful way to make them blink.

"There is no such thing as a perfect initiative," Stamper continued, but this one has a whole lot going for it. I'm campaigning for it, I'm voting for it, and I encourage everyone to do the same." Stamper also predicts "an early test case" on the DUID provision. "[U]nlike the 0.008% blood alcohol content level, the per se DUID is not established science," he said.

Stamper and other LEAP members have been hitting the hustings in support of I-502, bringing the powerful message of law enforcement support for reform to audiences across the state. "People are very impressed with LEAP," said Stamper. "There probably isn't a LEAP speaker who hasn't heard 'coming from you guys, we have to listen.' That's not so much a function of our elegance as speakers, but of the fact that we were on the front lines of the drug war for so many years, and some of us still are."

In Washington state, this movement argument over per se DUID may cost some purist pot votes on election day, but having that language in the initiative could also be the key to bringing enough worried soccer moms over to make it a winning issue. As Stroup noted, this is an issue that the movement will have to continue to confront, but it may be better to confront it from a position where the voters have already said "legalize it." WAUnited States

 

Phillip Smith is an editor at DRCNet.