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

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.

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.

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.

Bienenstock: Do you think there’s a possibility those rifts can heal?

Holmes: I think that when they see the genuine good that will come as a result of I-502’s passage, it will just be undeniable. Also, this type of opposition is far from uniform. There are a lot of medical marijuana supporters who have been big supporters of mine and want to see I-502 pass. Some of the best dispensaries will be positioned to be among the first licensed retailers, and some very progressive-minded folks in that industry are not part of that loud—and it’s usually loud—opposition. So let’s make sure we don’t paint them all with one broad stroke.

The people that bother me the most, really, are not the reformers opposed to I-502, and not even the traditional opposition among law-enforcement types, but rather the people I know who are interested in progressive government, that care about these issues—but that dismiss marijuana policy with kind of a little giggle and ask me why I would waste my time and political capital on it. The people who still think that it’s not a serious issue.  

That’s where I’ve had to educate some people I thought knew better about the real impact of these laws. That it’s not just an irritation for some people; this is actually doing harm to our country. The War on Drugs has made us the number-one jailer nation on the planet—and all educated and concerned citizens should know that and want to do something about it. And so that they would smirk and say, you know, “Gosh, you just wanna help people get high”—it’s disappointing, because it’s really such high-minded policy that underlies all of this. 

Fortunately, even those types are starting to see that this is a very serious effort, with serious public support. 

Trans High Corp/ High Times, 2012 -- All rights reserved. This excerpt has been published with permission from the author.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.