Pot legalization leaves questions unanswered

In Our Opinion


Leave it to a progressive state like Washington to do something that bucks the system.

Last week voters passed a referendum granting same-sex marriages, becoming one of three states to do so by popular vote. Not to be out done, but less heralded at the time, voters also passed an initiative legalizing marijuana.

While there will be hurdles and conflicts with implementation of the first one, legalizing, regulating and taxing the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for individuals over 21 might prove even more troublesome and interesting, to say the least.

The biggest reason is that while pot may be legal in this state, as well as in Colorado, beginning Dec. 6, it’s still illegal recreationally everywhere else – including in the eyes of the federal government.

How this all shakes out remains to be seen. Even the information in the Voter’s Guide was unclear since the state is essentially breaking new ground.

What is clear is that on Dec. 6 it will not be a crime under state law to possess marijuana for recreational use, and that portions of the initiative enforcing driving under the influence of marijuana, just like driving under the influence of alcohol, will go into effect.

How the state plans to regulate and tax its growth and distribution down the road remains to be seen, although the Guide does provide information and estimates on how much the state might realize in revenue from its sale along with where and in what quantities that revenue will go.

Some of the revenue from fees and taxes will go towards administering the requirements of the initiative, along with supporting programs helping treat addictions, health and safety and substance abuse prevention education and treatment. Fifty percent goes to the state’s Basic Health Plan with 18.5 percent tabbed for the general fund, monies that the Legislature will have to use as needed.

If treated right, legalizing marijuana could turn into a revenue stream for the state and therefore a benefit, provided programs that help prevent misuse and associated problems, similar to programs dealing with alcohol abuse, gambling, are well funded and effective.

All this is interesting speculation, but there is one big caveat – the feds. The Guide worded it just right under general assumptions: “To the extent that the federal government continues to enforce its criminal laws related to marijuana, it would impede the activities permitted by this initiative.”

That’s the main reason Washington’s Gov. Christine Gregoire met with Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole Tuesday, and why Colorado officials held similar meetings with Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see the feds’ response. Will they continue to crack down on marijuana sale and use? Once the Legislature sets up a regulatory and revenue scheme for its distribution and use, will prospective wholesalers and retailers have to live in fear of federal raids?

Or will the federal government begin to realize the rising tide of public opinion that marijuana use should be legalized, as it was prior to the beginning of the last century? Will federal politicians begin to see that marijuana is no longer considered a “gateway drug,” the conclusion reached by a 2010 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and that the best way to control it is to legalize and tax it, freeing up resources to go after more harmful and dangerous addictive drugs?

Now that the smoke is clearing from Washington’s passage of Initiative 502, only time will tell.


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