Washington’s pot measure creates strange bedfellows

Rob Carson / The (Tacoma) News Tribune /

TACOMA, Wash. — It’s not surprising that Jim Johnston is passionate about this year’s campaign for Initiative 502, the proposal to legalize marijuana in Washington state.

Johnston has used and appreciated marijuana since he was a teenager back in the 1960s, and for the past several years he’s been smoking it daily to control pain from head injuries.

He’s long believed that criminalizing cannabis is misguided and counterproductive social policy.

“I definitely want legalization,” Johnston said recently from his home in Puyallup. “As a society, we’re dumb for not doing it.”

What is surprising is that Johnston is campaigning against the initiative.

“We need a new law,” he said, “but this isn’t it. It’s definitely a conservative, one-sided thing.”

According to recent polls, Washington’s marijuana measure, which would allow adults to possess as much as an ounce of pot, has a good chance of passing.

A statewide Elway poll in early September found 50 percent in favor of I-502, 38 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided. In a SurveyUSA poll conducted about the same time, 57 percent of likely voters said they would vote yes.

That puts marijuana advocates on the verge of landmark legislation, something they’ve been unable to accomplish despite 40 years of effort that began with the first California Proposition 19 campaign in 1972.

But the I-502 campaign is threatened by ideological dissension in the pro-marijuana ranks, where the debate is not about whether marijuana should be legalized, but how it should be legalized.

The only organized opposition to I-502 is coming not from people who think the proposal goes too far, as one might expect, but from people such as Johnston, who think it doesn’t go far enough.

Opponents argue that, in the process of making the bill politically acceptable, its authors made compromises and set precedents that will prove difficult or impossible to get rid of and, in the long run, will set back the national campaign for more complete legalization.

Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney directing the pro campaign — New Approach Washington — characterizes the rift as “idealism versus incrementalism.”

She readily admits I-502 is a cautious step. But she says that’s the way it needs to be, not only because it’s a historic change in social policy, with many unknowns, but also for purely practical political reasons.

Concerns raised by opponents in past campaigns — the possibilities of increased use and dependence, easier access for children and the public danger of drugged driving, for example — needed to be addressed and dealt with, she said, and I-502 does that. Businesses with drug-free policies would still be able to enforce them under the initiative.

“We’re feeling a little bit validated by the fact that there is very little organized opposition,” Holcomb said. “The fact that people within the law are sponsoring this, I think, is reassuring for many people.”

Steve Sarich, the director of the No On I-502 campaign, calls the initiative “a Trojan horse.”

“This is just absolutely the wrong idea,” he said. “It’s adding new penalties on top of current penalties for use.”

He rejects charges that the real reason medical marijuana providers are against the initiative is that it would break up their lucrative monopoly on marijuana sales.

“I don’t think anybody’s getting rich on medical marijuana,” he said. “Nobody I know is.”

This image is copyrighted.