Marijuana legalization in Washington has been an activist’s pipe dream for decades, but a new campaign with deep pockets and prominent supporters is poised to force the state Legislature to vote on the issue or send it to the 2012 presidential ballot.
The group, New Approach Washington, is the strongest mainstream campaign to date. Since former federal prosecutor John McKay backed the campaign this summer, supporters with impressive résumés emerged, from wealthy investment analysts and businessmen to white-shoe attorneys and, this week, philanthropist Harriet Bullitt.
But absent from the list are some longtime advocates of legalization. In fact, a growing group of activists is pledging to campaign against New Approach’s Initiative 502 if it makes it to the ballot.
I-502 would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana and heavily tax a state-licensed production and distribution chain, from grower to newly created retail pot stores. It would generate an estimated $215 million a year, more than half of it dedicated to law enforcement and treatment.
In a bid to sway skeptical voters, I-502 would continue to ban pot possession for people under the age of 21 and set a new standard for driving while stoned, based on saliva tests for recently consumed THC.
Questions about the science behind that test, as well as the mechanics of the state regulation, drove Vivian McPeak, co-founder of Hempfest, to oppose I-502.
“I cannot, in good conscience, support New Approach Washington,” he said this week.
Alison Holcomb, campaign director of New Approach, acknowledged the infighting, but said compromise is necessary to woo undecided voters toward a huge shift in social policy.
“When you’re making big changes, you need to take incremental steps,” she said.
Despite headwind from activists, New Approach appears to be succeeding where previous legalization campaigns failed. With more than $1 million in donations, the campaign hired fleets of paid signature-gatherers.
Holcomb said the campaign is confident they’ll get the required 241,000 signatures and give voters a choice on legalization for the first time.
Marijuana legalization has kicked around Olympia since at least 1971, when a Seattle Democrat named Michael Ross introduced a bill described in The Seattle Times as likely the first in the nation. It died in committee.
There was a follow-up effort in 1977, with the state House passing a bill decriminalizing small amounts, but it too died. Two years later, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray signed a bill allowing a small experimental medical-marijuana research project that died after two years. A full medical-marijuana law was passed by voters in 1998.
Legalization efforts in Washington, and elsewhere, often have aimed to simply decriminalize cannabis, rather than tax and regulate it, in part to avoid the threat of federal pre-emption.
That was the approach of the 2010 campaign by Sensible Washington, which fell short in signature gathering.
Key people involved in that campaign, including Seattle attorneys Doug Hiatt and Jeffrey Steinborn, have come out against New Approach.
Rivalries among activists are common, but Steve Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said “those end up fading over time” in the pursuit of common goals.
Fox said failed campaigns in other states, including in California in 2010, have shown that legalization needs to be pushed during presidential elections when young voters turn out. And proposals to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol — as I-502 does — are the best approach, he said.
“If you’re going to pass a ballot-initiative measure and need 51 percent, you need to propose policies that the middle segment of the electorate will be comfortable with,” said Fox.
“It’s about time”
Bill Clapp is not among the usual suspects of marijuana advocacy. His great-grandfather was a co-founder of Weyerhaeuser, and his father was chairman and president. Clapp himself is active in advocating microcredit lending in developing countries.
Clapp has never supported legalization efforts, but he donated $25,000 to New Approach in September after seeing the human toll of the drug war in Central America. “What we’ve been doing isn’t working,” Clapp said this week.
He, like other unconventional supporters, said he heard no criticism for signing on.
“Everyone in my circle has been very positive and the usual reaction is, ‘It’s about time,’ ” said Sal Mungia, partner in the law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell and past president of the Washington State Bar Association.
Roger Roffman, a retired University of Washington professor, said New Approach is drawing different supporters in part because of endorsement from Rick Steves, the Edmonds-based travel guru, and McKay, former U.S. attorney in Seattle, the highest-ranking law-enforcement officer in the country to come out in favor of legalization.
But Roffman, who spent decades studying interventions for marijuana dependence, also credits aging baby boomers “who got through the teenage years with exposure to marijuana and came to see it as something that is possible to experience without it being devastating in its impact.”
The Washington Association of Sheriffs Police Chiefs will consider taking a position on I-502 at its fall conference. Don Pierce, the group’s executive director, said cops have been opposed in the past “based upon the absolute certainty that use will rise.”
But the group has invited McKay to speak at the conference. “We don’t think we’re missing something, but we’re willing to listen,” Pierce said.
Some legalization advocates, however, have heard enough.
They are primarily concerned about the impact on authorized medical-marijuana patients of the DUI provision, which defines impairment as 5 nanograms of active THC in the bloodstream based on 2005 research. Although I-502 specifically does not pre-empt the state medical-marijuana law, activists believe the DUI provision would apply to existing patients.
Dr. Gil Mobley, who runs a Federal Way clinic catering to medical-marijuana patients, said he recently tested several patients and found they passed cognitive tests even with THC concentrations of up to 47 nanograms. Nearly four hours after medicating, one patient still tested at 6 nanograms.
“I told them they’d be legally unable to drive if this law passes,” said Mobley. “It’s philosophically, morally and legally wrong.”
Nora Callahan, who has campaigned for drug-law reform since 1997, said she supports regulating legalized marijuana, but says I-502 would be “continuing prohibition.”
“We want a law for the people. I don’t know if this law cuts it,” said Callahan, co-founder of the November Coalition, an advocacy group based in Colville, Stevens County.
“But we know there is money behind it”.