Pubdate: Wed, 24 Oct 2012
Source: Stranger, The (Seattle, WA)
Copyright: 2012 The Stranger
Author: Dominic Holden


People Will Give You a Lot of Reasons to Vote to Legalize Pot on 
November 6, but You're Not Going to Hear Much About the One That Matters Most

I grew up near the edge of the Central District, and our house was at 
the top of a ridge, which served as a sort of racial dividing line. 
Houses on the eastern slope had spectacular views of the mountains 
and Lake Washington. They were expensive and their residents were all 
white. I can't recall a single black person who lived on that side of 
the hill. On the other side of the ridge, the houses' territorial 
views looked back into the gulch. With only scattered exceptions, 
those were all African American households.

That was Seattle in the 1980s. Thanks to the cosmic fortunes of where 
my parents settled down, I lived in an intermediary zone, on one of 
the city's few truly racially integrated streets. My Catholic 
parochial school one block north had only one other white kid in the 
class, a freckled girl from a very Catholic brood. The rest were 
African American, Asian, and mixed race. We were taught about MLK, 
schooled in the civil rights movement, and informed weekly that we 
would overcome someday. It was great. The first time I recall being 
angry-the sort of anger that boils behind your eyes-was in elementary 
school, learning about racial segregation on Montgomery's buses. That 
was awful.

By the time I could vote, lots of my classmates had been stopped for 
drugs in the Central District. The Seattle Police Department had 
adopted the federal government's Weed and Seed strategy, which 
ostensibly "weeded out" drug abusers in the neighborhood and "seeded" 
it with revitalization programs. In practice, though, Seattle 
cops-just like police forces across the country-scoured the inner 
city to make a frenzy of arrests, justified by a national hysteria 
over the crack epidemic. (Crack, it must be stated here, is a form of 
cocaine more popular with black people, but the difference from the 
powder cocaine more popular with whites is largely superficial.) The 
drug-war pandemonium in the 1980s and 1990s, as I witnessed it, 
amounted to cops stopping young black people on the street, shaking 
them down for crack or weapons, and busting them for the most likely 
contraband they could find: pot.

The white kids smoked pot, too, of course. They used it in the open, 
sold it, took acid, sold acid, gobbled ecstasy. What happened to 
them? Nothing. Not one damn thing happened to the white kids. I know 
because I was one of them, and when the cops came to my house for a 
911 call while several of us were obviously tripping on LSD, none of 
us got busted. We didn't even get searched.

Somehow, in a neighborhood that elevated the civil rights movement's 
leaders to the stratum of prophets, the community watched drug laws 
play out as an informal-but tolerated, because it was considered 
necessary-proxy for the double standards of justice applied to 
African Americans for centuries. To me, this was worse than someone 
being sent to the back of a bus; these young black guys were being 
sent to jail and prison, while white kids got off scot-free.

It's been well documented how prison populations ballooned. The 
inmate population in the United States quadrupled from a half million 
people in 1980 to two million by 2000. The number of people 
imprisoned for drugs increased twelvefold in that time, federal 
statistics show. Half of all prison inmates were black as of the late 
1990s, even though black people were only 13 percent of the country's 

As you probably know, drug laws were created to ensnare racial 
minorities (the fact that we use the word "marihuana" results from a 
federal campaign to criminalize cannabis in 1937 by associating it 
with Mexicans). Michelle Alexander made an academic case in her 2010 
book, The New Jim Crow, that the modern drug war created an 
underclass of citizens by dishing out millions of criminal records 
that make it difficult to vote, get a job, rent a home, receive 
student loans, and so on. "There are more African Americans under 
correctional control today-in prison or jail, on probation or 
parole-than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War 
began," Alexander wrote in a recent article for Huffington Post. This 
explosive prison growth is attributed to several factors and various 
drugs, of course, but pot is the most popular illicit drug, 
accounting for more than half of all drug arrests, and it's the drug 
that most Americans are ready to change the laws for.

But the way we enforce pot laws in Washington State has remained horrific.

Three New York-area academics released a report on October 11 called 
"240,000 Marijuana Arrests: Costs, Consequences, and Racial 
Disparities of Possession Arrests in Washington, 1986-2010," finding 
that blacks in Washington State smoke less pot than white people-I 
repeat, they use less pot than white people-yet are arrested at 2.9 
times the rate of white people. In this state, the pot possession 
arrest rate nearly tripled from 4,000 in 1986 to 11,000 in 2010, 
meaning the rate of pot busts has outpaced state population growth sixfold.

Now that Initiative 502 is on the November ballot to legalize 
possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, you may not hear those 
stats much. But for me, at least, this initiative is about race and 
civil rights more than it's about personal liberty or helping the 
economy. Some people may be incensed that a white guy like me would 
have the audacity to claim racial justice as his reason to take a 
stand. But you know what? I've been pissed about this for 20 years. I 
don't claim to speak for anyone but myself, and I don't have to.

Although condemnation of pot laws was essentially unheard of from 
African American leaders 30 years ago, the NAACP's Alaska, Oregon, 
and Washington State-Area Conference decried the racial disparities 
in drug enforcement and endorsed I-502 in August. Three local black 
church leaders have also endorsed the initiative: Reverend Leslie 
Braxton of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, Reverend Carl 
Livingston of Kingdom Christian Center, and Reverend Steve E. Baber 
of Skyway United Methodist Church. "It's no longer enough to say the 
war on drugs has been a failure," Braxton announced. "We have to 
recognize that it has done damage, especially to black Americans, and 
we have to change course. Marijuana law enforcement has become a 
pretext for pushing people into the criminal justice system where 
they get branded with criminal records that turn them into 
second-class citizens facing additional barriers to education and employment."

This particular initiative, which some people think is about stoners, 
is only incidentally about pot. Chances are, you don't care about pot 
and probably don't smoke it. If you do smoke it and you're white, 
chances are you don't care about the laws because the laws aren't a 
problem for you-you're not going to get busted for marijuana. 
Especially in Seattle. But if you're black or Latino, well, that's 
another story. Pot laws are used as an excuse to bust racial 
minorities. This is a civil rights issue-full stop. It's part of the 
same civil rights march that's been inching forward for centuries. 
Unlike the rest of the civil rights movement, this issue has made no 
traction at the federal level in more than 70 years. For me, voting 
yes on I-502 is the most crucial-and imminently achievable-vote to 
improve racial and social justice of my lifetime.

I became a pot activist when I was 17 years old. And I had smoked it, 
of course-lots of it-but that's not the reason I became a pot 
activist. In fact, by the time I was 25 and running the campaign for 
I-75, a city initiative to make possession the city's lowest 
enforcement priority, I didn't smoke it anymore. Reporters 
interviewing me for stories that appeared in this paper, in daily 
papers, on radio stations... they could not believe this fact. Why 
would anybody who doesn't smoke pot want to legalize marijuana?

I wanted to explain. I wanted to print the statistics about the 
disparity of marijuana arrests on all of our glossy mailers. I wanted 
to say that African Americans made up only 8.5 percent of the city's 
population but 35 percent of the city's pot possession busts-and 
isn't that fucking intolerable? And isn't that reason enough to 
change the law? For a time, we did run that message on a pamphlet 
(without the "fucking intolerable" part).

But then something happened. We got back the results of a poll of 
likely voters that we'd paid $14,000 to conduct. In a conference room 
at the ACLU offices at Second and Cherry, initiative cosponsor Ben 
Livingston and I sat across from a bunch of muckety-mucks. One of 
them had a question for us. "Do you want to win?" asked veteran 
campaign consultant Blair Butterworth. Or did we want to run a 
campaign about all the principles we had, about people's right to do 
with their body as they choose, about racial disparities, about cops 
shaking down black men looking for a dime bag? Because we could run 
that campaign, if we wanted. But that campaign probably wouldn't win. 
The polling was clear: Those aren't the messages that convince voters 
to relax the rules for pot. Nobody made us do anything we didn't want 
to do, but we wanted to win, so we mostly shut up about that race stuff.

"I-75 frees our police and prosecutors from enforcing marijuana laws 
so they can concentrate on protecting our communities from serious 
and violent crime."

I can't tell you how many times I said that sentence. To the media, 
on our mailers, at community meetings, we said it so much that in the 
final weeks of the I-75 campaign, an elderly woman on the bus who had 
no idea who I was spontaneously recited those words to me-verbatim-as 
her reason for supporting the initiative. It was a winner. 
Fifty-eight percent of voters approved I-75 in September 2003. After 
it passed, pot arrests dropped sharply in the first couple years, 
and, although the racial disparities for arrests remained high, the 
number of pot busts for black and white people declined. Then it got 
much better: Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes vanquished his 
anti-pot predecessor, Tom Carr, in 2009, and he's refused to 
prosecute a single marijuana possession case in Seattle since.

Although I'm proud of what we did, I-75 was a meager law. All it did 
on paper was make pot the lowest "priority," which is the sort of 
ambiguous directive that cops could ignore (and sometimes did ignore 
and continue to ignore-they can still arrest you for pot, knowing 
full well that the city attorney probably won't pursue it). On the 
other hand, it was a net gain because prosecutions stopped, and other 
cities like Oakland and San Francisco have since replicated that 
success. Even so, when we ran the initiative, lots of people insisted 
it was a bad idea.

Have you heard of concern trolls? They're typically internet 
commenters, but they could be anyone who attempts to undermine your 
argument by pretending to share your goal but disagrees with your 
strategy. They say your method will have unintended ramifications. We 
heard from a lot of concern trolls when we ran I-75-particularly from 
pot activists who said it didn't go far enough, it wouldn't pass, or 
our messaging was tailored too much to soccer moms. I agreed with 
them, kinda. But you should always ignore concern trolls.

Part of the reason pot politics are so fucking boring is because it 
feels like pot will stay illegal forever. You probably started 
talking with friends about why legalizing pot makes sense when you 
were like 14, and look-it's still illegal. Meanwhile, pot activists 
remain quixotic caricatures. Partly, that's how the press portrays 
them, sure. But partly it's because pot activists have been too 
uncompromising to win over Middle America (saying weed should grow in 
your backyard like roses!), and their campaigns are too amateurish to 
affect prime-time policy change. For example, we've been confronted 
at festivals for the last several summers with petitions to legalize 
pot, but those measures never show up on your ballot (until I-502 
this year, which is run by pros). Hempfest attracts growing numbers, 
but the organizers are intent on keeping it culturally insular. 
Meanwhile, medical marijuana dispensaries get busted up and down the 
West Coast, contributing to this sense that fed! eral raids negate 
every step in the right direction. Pot politics would seem a lot more 
exciting if, you know, Team Legalize would rack up some wins.

So, to go back to I-75, we ignored the concern trolls because we 
wanted to actually win.

And by winning, I-75 did more than just reduce pot busts. It helped 
put Seattle on record as a marijuana-friendly city. Just like San 
Franciscans can't be homophobic in their wonderfully gay-ass city, 
Seattleites can't be opposed to pot legalization when every elected 
official at city hall and member of the city's legislative delegation 
has gone on record supporting legal marijuana. That has shifted the 
region's identity, and it sets up I-502 to be the next win.

I-502 would work like this: (1) It would allow adults to possess up 
to an ounce of smokable marijuana, 16 ounces of solid-form marijuana 
cooked into food, and 72 ounces of cannabis infused into liquids; (2) 
it would then require the state to license pot farmers, pot 
distributors, and stores that sell those aforementioned cannabis 
products to folks 21 and over. In doing so, it would create a 
complete farm-to-joint legalization of marijuana that copies the same 
model we use to make, tax, and regulate alcohol.

I don't want to belabor this point, but HOLY FUCKING SHIT. No state 
has ever revolted against federal drug laws like this. If Washington 
passes this thing, we'll punch prohibition in the dick. Starting in 
December, we'd start nixing the roughly 10,000 possession arrests per 
year in this state.

The initiative's prime sponsor is former US Attorney John McKay, 
who's taken to the airwaves with millions of dollars of commercials 
to make his case along with former FBI bureau chief Charlie Mandigo, 
explaining that I-502 would free police and prosecutors to focus on 
violent and serious crime (that message voters love). Polls as 
recently as this week show I-502 has a very good shot: The UW's 
Washington Poll puts it at 51 percent support, SurveyUSA at 56 
percent, and Strategies 360 at 55 percent, with many voters still undecided.

I'm not inside the campaign, which is called New Approach Washington, 
so I don't know what the polling looks like for effective messages. 
But the ads don't talk about race; that issue is mostly relegated to 
a three-point fact sheet buried on the website, upstaged by the 
messages about redirecting our police priorities and weakening 
cartels. But there's something for everyone. Legalizing pot would 
save law-enforcement resources, raise tax revenue, protect medical 
marijuana patients from arrests, remove a tool used to bust racial 
minorities, and more.

Still, the concern trolls keep trolling.

Last week, I was on the phone with John Walters, who was George W. 
Bush's drug czar and who was conducting a conference call for 
reporters with former law-enforcement types. The stated goal was 
sending a message to the Obama Administration that they must vocally 
oppose I-502, in addition to pot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon, 
just as the Feds have done to previous pot initiatives.

Getting the White House to speak up-which Walters did twice in his 
efforts to stymie I-75-"would defeat these measures," Walters said.

Here's what was so bizarre: The leading argument at the top of the 
conference call was to say that these initiatives wouldn't actually 
legalize marijuana.

"Federal law, the US Constitution, and the US Supreme Court decisions 
say that this cannot be done because federal law preempts state law," 
said Peter Bensinger, former DEA administrator. This was some serious 
concern trolling. Consider the argument here: Don't legalize 
marijuana because, if you do, marijuana still won't be legal enough. 
Really? If you're so concerned that a popular vote on this issue is 
moot, then why are you staging a three-ring political circus asking 
the federal government to campaign to "defeat these measures"?

By definition, concern trolls aren't actually concerned that you'll 
fail-they're concerned that you'll win. And the drug czars and DEA 
chiefs, who also opposed medical marijuana that passed in 17 states, 
are now concerned I-502 will make Washington the first state to 
legalize marijuana for all adults. That would lead to more states 
legalizing pot and pot stores around the country. After all, medical 
marijuana dispensaries are proliferating fearlessly. Are they legal 
under federal law? No. Does that stop them? Nope. (The handful of 
federal raids generally only target the largest, sketchiest 
dispensaries.) These concern trolls are concerned that just like 
medical marijuana-which is 100 percent illegal by federal 
standards-recreational marijuana is going to become normal in America.

The truth is, federal officials don't have the resources or the 
jurisdiction to bust people for marijuana possession. It's just not 
what the DEA or federal courts do. If I-502 passes, it will strike 
down the state penalty for pot possession, and there isn't a single 
fucking thing the Feds can do to stop it-they can't preempt that 
portion of the initiative.

On the other hand, the US Department of Justice can-and probably 
will, if I-502 passes-attempt to challenge Washington's proposal to 
regulate the pot industry. They will likely challenge it in US 
District Court, and the case of United States v. State of Washington 
will be appealed and appealed until it reaches the Supreme Court.

Guess what?

That's the fucking point.

Let's have a national discussion about pot legalization, and let's 
have it be a discussion about a well-thought-out model for regulation 
that emulates the rigors of alcohol regulations. That battle is 
strategic, it's overdue, and it's the goal. And in the meantime, the 
new state law allowing people to possess marijuana will be what's 
enforced locally. So we have our cake and eat it, too.

A young woman who I met at a party last Friday didn't know how she 
would vote on I-502. She supported legalizing marijuana, she said, 
but wondered why, then, medical marijuana activists and some Hempfest 
organizers opposed it. I've explained this in detail in a long, long 
story in March-it's called "Pot Activists vs. Pot Activists," and you 
should go read it for more information on what I'm about to 
summarize-but since it's October and we're voting in three weeks, it 
bears repeating. Briefly.

The medical marijuana industry and certain pot activists (who, 
remember, have a track record of running initiatives that don't even 
make the ballot) want the perfect initiative: They want pot grown at 
home, they want no taxes on it, they want zero threat of federal 
intervention, and they want no penalties for driving stoned. Being a 
grown adult who wants all that is like being a child who wants a pony.

I-502 was tailored specifically to pass in November, so it contains 
regulations that copy regulations for alcohol. The folks who oppose 
it complain that I-502 would impose 25 percent excise taxes at each 
stage of production, thereby raising the cost of pot. They are 
concerned that the provisions allowing for farmers and stores will be 
overturned. But their biggest gripe is a provision about driving 
while stoned. At Hempfest, a petitioner working for a competing pot 
initiative told the throngs to oppose I-502 because "If cops pull you 
over and you have any THC in your blood, you can go to jail." He said 
that you'll get a DUI a week after getting high.

That's not true. Here's a summary of how the initiative works: It 
contains a provision for adults 21 and over that says if they're 
driving with more than five nanograms of active THC per milliliter of 
blood, they are automatically guilty of DUI. Of the handful of 
available scientific studies, not one shows even the heaviest pot 
user above that level the next day. In other words, the science 
proves that opponents' claims about pot DUIs the next day are wrong. 
When they say adults will get busted for DUI the next day, they are 
lying to you. Science shows that most people are below the 
five-nanogram level within a few hours, and it also shows that people 
who are above that level are more dangerous drivers. (As a caveat: 
The initiative also would not allow anyone under 21 to drive with 
active THC in their system, which is consistent with current law. As 
it stands now, all drivers can be and are convicted for any THC in 
their system while driving, so the initiative would actually! be more 
progressive than current law for adults 21 and over.) But this isn't 
about adults getting busted while driving sober; the people who latch 
onto the DUI issue are fighting for their right to drive high.

As for taxes on pot, the teabaggers need to get over it.

As for medical marijuana patients, I-502 would finally protect them 
from being arrested for possession. I-502 doesn't change the state's 
Medical Use of Marijuana Act, passed in 1998, but that law doesn't 
protect patients from arrest for possession. It only gives them a 
defense in court. The only thing I-502 might hurt is the bottom line 
of the people who currently make money off of medical marijuana patients.

And, finally, while I-502 will face a federal challenge, again, the 
possession part can't be challenged, and that would eliminate roughly 
10,000 arrests in Washington per year.

I-502's loudest critics are concern trolls. Moreover, they're concern 
trolls who have got theirs-folks who aren't going to get busted 
because they're largely white, authorized as medical marijuana 
patients, or wealthy from the medical marijuana market-and have 
little to gain by passing the initiative. Despite being a monumental 
leap for civil rights, they quibble, I-502 isn't ideal. But I-502 
shouldn't be compared to the ideal law; it should be compared to 
prohibition, which is the only alternative we've got right now.

To the extent that people dislike compromises in I-502, I get that. 
Personally, I don't like the per se cutoff for driving, which says 
that you are automatically guilty of a DUI if the active THC in your 
blood is above the five-nanogram level; I think prosecutors should 
have to prove impairment. But per se cutoffs are the standard that we 
already have for alcohol, and like it or not, it's the same model 
we're going to see for marijuana. The reason those strict DUI 
provisions are in there is to help get this thing passed. Attacks 
focusing on stoned driving have played a big role in defeating other 
pot initiatives, such as Proposition 19 in California. A poll last 
year by Quinlan Rosner Research found that the DUI provision alone 
prompted 62 percent of voters to say that they were more likely to 
support I-502, and only 11 percent said it would make them less 
likely to support the initiative. Same goes for home growing; voters 
don't support it.

So I'm sorry, medical marijuana profiteers and Hempfest organizers, 
but legalization is going to come with big-kid, all-grown-up-now 
rules. That means rules for DUI, licenses for growers, taxes, and all 
that stuff that comes with regulating an agricultural commodity. Now 
that the movement has finally made it to the big time, it's the folks 
who've prospered under prohibition who are now whining that they like 
the old rules better. Of course they do: They're making money hand 
over goddamn fist under the old system. They'll always come up with a 
complaint. If another initiative comes around, they'll have 
complaints about that one, too.

And true, I-502 isn't everything. It won't single-handedly crush 
cartels, save the state budget, or end racial profiling in this country.

But America always takes small steps-every time with concern trolls 
nipping at the heels of progress. If we take this plunge on pot, 
yeah, there will be a federal challenge. But look at all the progress 
made on gay marriage even though the federal Defense of Marriage Act 
has been in place. There is a federal case for same-sex marriage now 
winding through the court systems toward the US Supreme Court. In the 
years that it's been in federal courts, gay marriage has gone from 
having minority public support to seeing a majority of 
Americans-including the sitting president-supporting it. A majority 
of people believing in marriage equality has become the national 
status quo, not despite a national challenge instigated by the 
states, but because of a national challenge instigated by the states.

If our idiotic drug war is going to rise to the same level of 
exposure, it will be because states force the issue. And that 
requires a state boldly defying federal law, former drug czars, the 
medical-pot profiteers, the fears that we'll never win, and centuries 
of racism that the drug war's been steeped in. That means passing I-502.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom