I retired from the bench in 2005, after presiding over Whatcom County civil and criminal matters for 20 years. Then, as now, I did not believe that marijuana use was an appropriate matter for the criminal justice system. I believed that we could more effectively and economically tackle marijuana use as a public health issue, and still do.
The only difference I see now is that matters have gotten worse. We still arrest more than 9,000 adults every year for the offense of possessing marijuana. We still waste police, prosecutor and judge time that could be spent on serious crimes. We still saddle otherwise law-abiding citizens with criminal records that pose barriers to education and employment.
But now, the Canadian gangs and Mexican cartels enriched by marijuana prohibition are more violent, and they have extended their operations into Washington.
In 2007, a double homicide in an Everett indoor marijuana grow was tied to a crime ring from Canada. The same group turned several homes in suburban King County neighborhoods into grow operations as well. Last October, another ring of homes was raided in Clark County. The investigation involved 300 officers from 16 agencies, 56 search warrants and 43 arrests. The group had been pulling in approximately $27 million a year.
In 2008, agents discovered 200,000 marijuana plants being grown among vineyards in the Yakima Valley, and 16,742 being grown in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 500,000 plants were found on the Yakama Reservation. This year, 93,000 plants were seized from Washington lands in July and August alone.
Here in Whatcom County, tons of B.C. Bud enter the U.S. from lower British Columbia, where outlaw motorcycle gangs and Asian crime families battle for control of the lucrative trade. Associated gang violence is spilling over into Bellingham.
Marijuana is the bread and butter of the multi-national drug trafficking organizations. Tons of it are smuggled into the U.S. each year by tractor-trailers, airplanes, tunnels and even catapults. Tons more are grown on our own soil. The billions of dollars the marijuana black market generates subsidize the gangs' production of cocaine and heroin, and make it possible for them to buy guns and corrupt governments.
Just as with alcohol Prohibition, our marijuana prohibition is not only failing. It is doing real harm. It is relinquishing control to the bad guys and making them richer.
We can do better. We can take control of marijuana, tightly regulate it, and invest tax revenues in proven public health strategies for preventing and treating marijuana abuse. Initiative 502, which will be on our November ballot, does just this. It legalizes, regulates and taxes the purchase and possession of limited quantities of marijuana for adults 21 and over. Only licensed Washington businesses would be allowed to grow and sell marijuana, and only through standalone, marijuana-only stores located at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks and playgrounds. It dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars of new marijuana excise taxes to prevention, public health education, research, and evaluation.
Initiative 502 will not, by itself, dismantle the violent drug trafficking organizations. However, it is a solid first step that can provide a model for how a tightly regulated legal market can complement law enforcement's efforts to choke off illegal supply chains. By separating customers from criminals at the point of sale, we deprive these gangs of a significant source of revenue and weaken them.
It's time for a new approach to marijuana. Initiative 502 is a thoughtful proposal for change. Please vote yes.
David A. Nichols is a retired Whatcom County Superior Court judge.