By Julie Summers, Special to the Journal
On Election Day, Washington voters lived up to their progressive reputation by passing Initiative 502 to legalize recreational use of marijuana. The initiative passed with 55 percent statewide approval and an overwhelming 68 percent support in San Juan County, the largest margin in the state.
A similar measure passed in Colorado, making Washington and Colorado the first two states to allow recreational marijuana.
“Everybody’s talking about this now,” said San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord. “Everybody’s interested to see how it will unfold.”
Local officials’ reactions vary widely. In a letter to the editor (Oct. 23 Weekly edition), Gaylord encouraged voters to carefully consider I-502 and stated that he would adapt his policies based on the results. One complication is that I-502 is slated to go into effect in 30 days, but the law is now in direct conflict with federal law, which bans marijuana. Gaylord said there is a lot of speculation on how this will play out.
Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside heroin and ecstasy. Schedule I drugs “have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration,
Although there are medical marijuana laws in 18 states and D.C. (the most recent just passed in Massachusetts) and there have been several attempts to reclassify marijuana, the federal government has yet to do so.
In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would essentially defer to state laws regarding medical marijuana, but it remains unclear whether that precedent will hold with recreational use. Gaylord points out that the conflict between state and federal laws could be complicated by the fact that Washington is a border state with increased federal law enforcement presence. Officers of the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, and other federal agencies, he says, follow federal law, and users in line with the Washington law may still be prosecuted under certain circumstances, such as the use of marijuana in a national park.
Taking a stand
Prior to the election, Sheriff Rob Nou urged the community to join with him in voting no on I-502, warning that youth and communities would be at risk.
“It puts the state in the marijuana business, in competition with the current drug traffickers,” he wrote. Others, like former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, contend that I-502 will in fact take business, and therefore power, away from dangerous drug dealers. Stamper argued in an letter to the editor (Oct. 30 edition of the Islands’ Sounder) that I-502 does not promote marijuana use, but rather “ends decades of harm caused by marijuana prohibition.” Legal regulation, he wrote, will actually make communities safer, pointing out that street traffickers do not card 14-year-olds.
Financial issues concerned voters on both sides of the issue. The Washington State Office of Financial Management predicts the measure could generate as much as $1.9 billion in tax revenue over five years. However, opponents remain concerned about the costs incurred by a potential increase in drug abuse and drug-related crime and car accidents.
“Currently the social costs related to alcohol are around $185 billion,” said Lopez Island Prevention Coalition Executive Coordinator Georgeana Cook, referring to a 2004 World Health Organization global status report on alcohol, “and of that, less than 8 percent is covered by taxes and penalties.”
Cook said the number one concern is the health and safety of youth. “My first question is ‘What message are we giving to our youth and how will this affect them?’”
Gaylord is quick to point out that headlines touting the new legality of marijuana are a bit deceiving. It is still illegal to drive impaired and to display or consume marijuana in public. As of Dec. 6, it will be legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of useable marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form, or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused product in liquid form. But sale and purchase for non-medical use will remain illegal until state regulations are put in place, which could take up to a year. Use and possession by minors is strictly prohibited, and adults who provide marijuana to minors will be prosecuted, just like with alcohol.
Gaylord said he will speak with Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, which could give him an indication of the feds’ intentions. He plans to coordinate with Nou to ensure a consistent county policy, and will speak with school and prevention groups so they’re aware of what is being done to keep marijuana out of minors’ hands. Nou said the passage of I-502 creates “a very muddy picture” in the short term.
“This is pretty much uncharted waters,” he said. “On the enforcement side it’s almost nightmarish.”
Now that the law has passed, he said, it is his job to enforce it. But he has concerns about the state/federal conflict, especially as it pertains to San Juan County’s marine traffic. He won’t speculate on potential federal intervention, but said, “I think we’re a long way from full implementation of this law.”
Gaylord said the process could get complicated. But, he stressed, it is important for people to understand that they will continue to be prosecuted if the law is violated – regardless of what that law is. Nou said his biggest concern is the messaging.
“It is much more complicated than simply saying ‘marijuana is now legal,’” he said. “People will have to be diligent in researching it and knowing what the boundaries are.”