Pubdate: Sat, 01 Sep 2012
Source: Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)
Copyright: 2012 The Spokesman-Review
Author: Jim Camden


Suppose voters decided that they've had it with federal drug rules 
that make marijuana an illegal substance akin to heroin or cocaine, 
and they change Washington state law to make marijuana legal.

Not in all instances, not for everyone, not at any time. But for 
adults, in regulated quantities, for limited uses.

While that might be a fair shorthand description of what Initiative 
502 proposes this November, this isn't just a hypothetical scenario 
about the future. It's also a description of the past. In 1998, 
Washington voters "legalized" marijuana for medical uses, even though 
the federal government said at the time, and still does, the drug 
belongs on the list of controlled substances that have no legal medical use.

Fourteen years later, state officials still struggle with developing 
a system to regulate medical marijuana production and sale, while the 
U.S. Justice Department continues to prosecute "dispensaries" under 
federal drug trafficking statutes for selling pot to state-approved 
medicinal smokers unwilling or unable to grow it for themselves.

Supporters of I-502 -- which would allow for the possession and 
consumption of small amounts of marijuana by adults but keep it 
illegal for minors and anyone operating a vehicle -- say it will free 
local law enforcement and state courts from the cost of marijuana 
enforcement. The prosecution, defense, court and jail costs of those 
cases cost Washington governments more than $200 million between 2000 
and 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington recently estimated.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said the chance to 
lighten the load on local police and avoid filling local courts and 
jails makes I-502 a good choice. While there's no guarantee what 
federal drug agents and prosecutors will do, the chance to begin 
discussions also would be a plus, he said.

"If nobody acts, nothing's going to happen," he said.

I-502 won't stop federal officials from enforcing the law, most 
concede. But it will spark discussions on how to shift from 
individual users to large criminal organizations bringing drugs 
across state and national borders, said Pete Holmes, the Seattle city 
attorney and a supporter of the initiative.

"It would take a great deal of hubris to just brush it aside," Holmes said.

The state's federal prosecutors won't even talk about what they would 
do if voters approve I-502.

"We're not making plans right now," said Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney 
for Eastern Washington, adding he's had no discussions with 
supporters of the initiative and "I don't intend to have any."

Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, hasn't had any 
official discussions on what actions federal law enforcement would 
take if the ballot measure passes, a spokeswoman said. "We are 
prohibited from commenting on Initiative 502," Emily Langlie said. 
"It's possible, between now and the election, the Department of 
Justice will provide further instructions."

Last year, Ormsby warned dispensaries in Spokane that they faced 
federal prosecution if they didn't shut down. A letter from Ormsby 
and Durkan to Gov. Chris Gregoire prompted the governor to 
essentially gut a bill that legislators had hammered out to regulate 
the production and sale of medical marijuana, which was called for in 
the 1998 ballot measure.

"Growing, distributing and possessing marijuana in any capacity, 
other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a 
violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such 
activities," they wrote in April 2011.

I-502 calls for the state to regulate the production, processing and 
sale of marijuana -- and collect taxes on it -- through the state 
Liquor Control Board.

Holmes believes the passage of I-502 could actually ease the federal 
pressure on medical marijuana dispensaries. It was the proliferation 
of those facilities and readily available "prescriptions" that helped 
spur the federal crackdown, he said.

"There are a lot of sham users of medical marijuana," he said. "The 
number of dispensaries you see is quite a bit beyond what's needed 
for medical marijuana."

I-502 would likely preclude the need for dispensaries because medical 
patients could find the drug relatively easily, he added.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is running for governor this 
fall on the same ballot as I-502, said passage of the measure will 
create "a serious conflict between state law and federal law." If 
state and local officials don't prosecute marijuana cases, federal 
prosecutors likely will, he said.

"It's not a state's rights issue," McKenna said: It's an issue where 
federal law rules under the Constitution's supremacy clause.

Like his Democratic opponent for governor, Jay Inslee, Republican 
McKenna opposes I-502. If the measure passes, one or the other would 
be faced with dealing with the fallout, although neither has specific plans.

Inslee's campaign said simply that he would "work with legislators 
and stakeholders to implement the new law."

McKenna said he believes the initiative will fail, so he won't deal 
with a hypothetical like how he would deal with the U.S. Justice 
Department. "I don't want to comment on what could happen on a law 
that won't pass."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom