Initiative is a step toward making sense of marijuana laws

A historical transformation of social values has occurred during the early years of the 21st century toward once-controversial issues such as same-sex marriage and the use of marijuana. Whenever communal morals shift so significantly, governments eventually recognize the need to conform its laws to reflect the public’s will.

State and federal governments have so far ignored the changing attitude of Americans toward the use of marijuana, both as a medically useful drug and as a recreational diversion. This has resulted in a tangled mess of conflicting laws and regulations that begs to be cleared up quickly.

Initiative 502 has the potential to add to this problem, because until the federal law banning marijuana is changed, anyone possessing even a small amount remains open to federal prosecution.

But voters should approve the initiative for its near-term impact on pressuring Congress to acknowledge the reality of modern attitudes toward the substance.

If approved, I-502 would decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana for adults over age 21. It would license growers and allow the sale of marijuana in private stores licensed, regulated and taxed by the state.

The initiative would create a new marijuana DUI standard based on a blood-THC level – similar to the blood-alcohol limit of 0.08. And it would allow Washington farmers to grow industrial hemp and cash in on a multimillion-dollar national market.

It would also give legitimate medical users an avenue of defense against federal charges.

This initiative has its flaws, and does not even please those who believe in total legalization. By that, they suggest Congress and the state Legislature should wipe its books of all laws making marijuana illegal.

Critics of the initiative point out that 90 percent of marijuana arrests of people in the 16-to-21 age group occur at traffic stops. This initiative will harm those young people, the critics say, because it will turn a marijuana arrest into a more serious DUI charge.

But if we’re going to treat marijuana as a public health issue, as we do alcohol and tobacco, shouldn’t we establish some standard of impairment for the substance?

This initiative attempts to do that.

Public safety expects police officers who smell alcohol or marijuana during a routine traffic stop to investigate impaired driving, whether it is intoxication by pot or by booze. No officer should take the risk of ignoring impairment of any kind, lest that person drive away and kill someone in a traffic accident.

Opponents of I-502 fear the initiative will increase access for people younger than 21, though it’s naive to think juveniles don’t already have complete and unfettered access.

By the same token, supporters are overly optimistic that approval of I-502 would generate new tax revenue for the state by squeezing out the illegal black market controlled by violent gangs and organized crime. Gangs will still have the juvenile market and may offer the substance below government-regulated prices.

Despite its flaws, a recent KING-5 News poll shows that 58 percent of respondents support I-502, and only 21 percent oppose it. Another 21 percent were undecided.

Supporters of the initiative include 16 state legislators, a U.S. attorney, the former Seattle police chief, the NAACP, judges, educators and the Children’s Alliance, an advocacy group representing more than 100 social-service agencies.

Seventeen states have adopted medical marijuana laws. Other states and provinces, including New York and British Columbia, have embraced unofficial decriminalization policies.

The New York Legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults in 1977. The New York Police Department has regularly issued memorandums to its officers – as recently as this month – reminding them not to arrest people with small amounts of the substance, unless they are displaying it publicly.

Congress had doggedly refused to change its classification of marijuana. Right now, according to the feds, marijuana is more dangerous than the prescription pain-killing pills, such as oxycodone, that are killing young and old alike at an alarming rate. The feds consider pot on the same level as heroin.

Congress must lead the way on sensible change to the nation’s marijuana laws, and it’s obvious they aren’t going to act without grass-roots support and pressure from states.

From that perspective, Washington residents who favor change in both state and federal marijuana laws should vote for this initiative.

We know from decades of anti-marijuana laws that the substance remains widely used and accessible to people of all ages. We also know that whatever our national policy is on marijuana, it isn’t working.

It appears to be time for a new approach. I-502 takes a carefully considered first step toward matching laws with community standards.