We can’t wait for feds to reform marijuana laws

THE OLYMPIANJanuary 9, 2012 

Recently signatures were turned in to the office of the Secretary of State by New Approach Washington to qualify Initiative 502 to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and over under Washington state law.

Passage of Initiative 502 would put our Washington ahead of that other Washington’s ongoing criminal prohibition of marijuana, raising concerns among some. As a former U.S. representative and long-time meddler, I must share that I have seldom seen major shifts in federal law touching on sensitive social issues that didn’t initiate at the state level.

And now after watching our nation spend 40 years and $1 trillion on a failed War on Drugs, I believe Washington’s citizens understand that this is an issue where leadership must come from the states. Matters that resonate at a cultural or emotional level almost always are taken up first at home.

Governors Chris Gregoire and Lincoln Chafee are to be commended for publicly acknowledging that marijuana does not belong on the federal government’s Schedule I – those substances with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use – when cocaine is on the less serious Schedule II and neither alcohol nor tobacco are on any schedule at all.

Three previous petitions to reschedule marijuana have been brought before the Drug Enforcement Administration over the past four decades, and each has been denied after languishing for years. The most recent petition was filed in 2002 and denied just this past July. Little reason exists to believe the DEA’s response will be different this time.

Change can begin in our Washington while we wait for the other Washington to catch up.

Initiating marijuana law reform at the state level is hardly new. After President Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended decriminalization of marijuana in 1972, Congress did nothing. However, 11 states followed the recommendation and decriminalization possession of small amounts of marijuana during the years 1975 to 1978. Nevada joined in 2001, Massachusetts in 2008.

In 1996, California passed the first state medical marijuana law, and 15 other states plus Washington, D.C., followed suit. Seven of these medical marijuana laws include provisions for licensing and regulating the production and distribution of marijuana, including the District of Columbia, whose laws are subject to congressional review. New Mexico has had dispensaries licensed and in operation since 2009.

Initiative 502, sponsored by one former U.S. attorney and endorsed by another, represents a carefully considered, responsible approach to reforming state marijuana laws in a way that promotes good governance and effective use of public resources. It is not a free-for-all that thumbs its nose at the federal government’s marijuana prohibition. Rather, it constructs a tight regulatory system guided by a solid focus on public health and safety.

Some worry that the new marijuana DUI standard included in I-502 may put medical marijuana patients with higher tolerances at risk. However, Washington law already requires objective evidence of actual impairment before an officer may arrest someone for DUI and request a blood test by a medical professional, and I-502 earmarks new revenues for further study of THC’s impact on driving. If problems materialize, they can be addressed in the courts or Legislature.

We can no longer afford to sit idly by, waiting for marijuana law reform to happen at the federal level. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, marijuana sales in the U.S. constitute “the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels.” The violence is spilling across the border and into Washington itself as criminal organizations set up shop.

Taking marijuana out of the black market and bringing it under regulatory control will have a direct and significant impact on the cartel’s bottom line and ability to do harm. It will free up law enforcement resources currently wasted on nonviolent marijuana offenders to go after violent criminals. It will better promote public health and safety in our communities.

Initiative 502 may make federal authorities uncomfortable for the period of time that federal law continues to be out of sync with voters’ wishes. However, being willing to push an issue to an uncomfortable place is sometimes what it takes to demonstrate leadership. For these reasons, I endorse I-502 and encourage our Washington legislators and voters to support it.

Jolene Unsoeld of Olympia served in the Washington State Legislature from the 22nd District followed by a term in Congress from 1989 through 1995.

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