Election 2012: Why You Should Vote for Washington’s Marijuana Legalization

The state of Washington will have measure I-502 (PDF) on the general election ballot in November to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in a manner very similar to alcohol.

I don’t smoke marijuana. I don’t care if you do. But I do care that our current system of law enforcement around marijuana creates more criminals than would otherwise exist, breaks up families and imprisons people unnecessarily. The criminalization of marijuana has all the same problems as alcohol prohibition and makes even less sense. If Washington state legalizes it, it may be the start to a national trend that will change our laws and culture to the benefit of all.

The proposed law

The proposed law would, at least in the state of Washington, legalize the production, processing, sale (with a tax) and consumption of marijuana. The current state liquor control board would be authorized to license producers (growers), processors and retailers. Further, state law would be changed to add marijuana as an intoxicating substance with a threshold similar to alcohol. General consumption and possession would no longer be illegal at the state level.

Oddities of the proposal

  • Retailers of marijuana products will not be allowed to sell anything but marijuana, marijuana products and paraphernalia. The retailer is also not allowed to have much external advertising beyond a sign of a certain maximum size. This is very different than alcohol retail sales which occur in many locations, usually with food and other goods. Sadly, I expect this to result in marijuana continuing to be perceived as outside the norm (despite large numbers of Americans using the substance). On the other hand, this isolates harm to neighborhoods from any trouble with the federal government: if your corner convenience store can’t sell marijuana, it can’t get shut down by the federal government. On the other, other hand, if the law allowed any business that could legally sell alcohol to sell marijuana, it might greatly accelerate the national conversation as the federal government can’t practically arrest so many people (or I’m naive — yes, probably that).
  • The retail marijuana sales tax seems remarkably high at 25%. This might be high enough (combined with the costs of single-purpose business locations) that black market marijuana would be cheap enough that to be worth the risk. However, the tax on a carton of cigarettes is over $30 and I’m not aware of dominating black market activity there so perhaps it’s not that outrageously high.

Vote Yes on I-502 to Legalize Marijuana

I’m not going to make a complete case here that the drug war and marijuana prohibition have been detrimental to society. Others have done that better. This law won’t even end marijuana prohibition. All it will do is relax the rules in the state of Washington and maybe, maybe someday the laws of our nation will change. What do I want to change?

  • We put far more black and minority men in prison for drug crimes than white men (or women) despite similar rates of use (and dealing). This is unconscionable.
  • We are criminalizing a common behavior that is fundamentally similar to legal behavior (e.g. alcohol use). People using marijuana are no more risk to society than drinkers of alcohol (quite easily argued less risk). But we’ve created a system that criminalizes casual users and abusers equally. A person who is having trouble with alcohol can get help. A person who is having trouble with marijuana might avoid trying to get help for fear of the law. If you have trouble with alcohol, you might harm your family and friends (or kill someone) but you probably won’t go to jail. Even if you’re able to handle marijuana responsibly, you may still harm your family and friends because you might go to jail.
  • Marijuana prohibition empowers cartels and broader illegal activity. Unlike other drugs, the domestic marijuana market could be served entirely domestically and under effective rule of law. In general, alcohol manufacturers and distributors don’t get into gun battles. I don’t expect marijuana ones would either.

I strongly think this law is a good idea even if it doesn’t achieve all possible goals. But there are some provisions that even someone inclined to agree with me might find objectionable.

  • The changes to create DUI enforcement for marijuana contains a fairly odious provision that allows no level of marijuana for under 21 drivers. For alcohol, an underage driver can have some small amount of alcohol in their system and not be considered driving under the influence. This law allows no such threshold for marijuana.
  • How the state and federal government will interact under this law is complicated and unpredictable. There is some possibility that no one will risk becoming a legal producer or retailer because of worries about federal enforcement. In that case, users of marijuana will continue buying illegally.

I won’t pretend: this is not a perfect law. It’s not the one I would write. It might not even actually change anything — certainly we won’t enter a utopia of improved drug policy and a less racist criminal justice. But it’s better than what we have now. Vote yes on I-502 to legalize marijuana in Washington.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.