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The Future of Pot: Is Legalization Around the Corner In Colorado and Washington?

While Americans are becoming increasingly aware of prohibition's consequences, the legalization movement still has many obstacles to overcome.

In a sharp challenge to federal drug laws, Washington and probably Colorado will vote this year to let state-licensed farmers and stores grow and sell marijuana. Legalization initiatives will probably make the ballot in both states.

In Washington, the State Elections Division announced January 27 that Initiative 502 had qualified for the November ballot, with supporters handing in well over the 241,153 signatures needed. The state legislature could enact it into law before then, but campaign manager Alison Holcomb says that is unlikely, as the taxes included would require a two-thirds majority.

In Colorado, Initiative 30 supporters handed in 159,000 signatures in early January, well over the 86,105 needed. The Secretary of State’s office said January 19 that it had found enough invalid signatures to warrant a line-by-line review. It will announce whether the measure made the ballot by February 3. If the initiative falls short, supporters will have 15 days to gather more signatures.

Both measures would legalize marijuana under regulations similar to those for alcohol, but somewhat stricter. They would set the smoking age at 21, allowing adults to possess up to one ounce and grow up to six plants. State-licensed farmers would grow it commercially, and state-licensed stores would sell it. However, public consumption would be prohibited, so there wouldn’t be any Amsterdam-style cannabis coffeeshops in Denver or Seattle.

“Adults would no longer be punished for using a substance less harmful than alcohol,” says Mason Tvert, co-chair of the Colorado coalition, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

The two measures would also impose an excise tax on wholesaled cannabis, of 25 percent in Washington and up to 15 percent in Colorado, where the first $40 million in revenue would go to school construction. Colorado’s Initiative 30 would let farmers grow industrial hemp, and local jurisdictions could decide if they wanted to be “dry.” Washington’s Initiative 502 would set up a three-tier system of growers, processors and retailers, with growers and processors not allowed to sell it. More controversially, it would define having a minimum concentration of THC in the blood—5 nanograms per milliliter—as proof of driving while under the influence.

Colorado voters rejected a legalization initiative in 2006, but a December poll showed voters favoring I-30 by 49-40 percent. In Washington, organizers haven’t done a poll on Initiative 502, says Alison Holcomb, but 57 percent of people polled in November supported legalizing possession of an ounce with a 25 percent tax.

“We need to continue demonstrating that ending marijuana prohibition is a mainstream issue,” says Tvert. 

New Approach, the group behind I-502, definitely has mainstream credentials. Its sponsors include Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who announced upon taking office in 2009 that he would not prosecute marijuana-possession cases; state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle; former federal prosecutor John McKay, one of the eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration for political reasons in 2007; and travel writer Rick Steves, a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ advisory board. Campaign manager Holcomb is former drug policy director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

However, the initiative has drawn some opposition from the Washington cannabis community, mainly because of objections to the 5-nanogram DUI standard. That provision “trades one kind of arrest for a worse kind of arrest,” says Jeffrey Steinborn, a longtime Seattle pot-defense lawyer and NORML board member. He argues that dangers of driving while buzzed are exaggerated, so the I-502 campaign is “pandering to the fear of stoned drivers.” Instead, he contends, police should use “objective evidence of impairment,” such as weaving or speeding.

“If we don’t address this issue, it’s going to haunt us,” responds Holcomb. She says that based on the science that’s currently available, there is an increased correlation between that level of THC and increased risk of accidents. The federal National Highway Transportation Safety Administration uses the 5 ng/ml standard as well.