The marijuana legalization initiative on the fall ballot got an unexpected vote of confidence Monday from a prominent child-advocacy group and an expected vote of disapproval from a group of substance-abuse providers.
The Children’s Alliance, a Seattle nonprofit whose members include major social services agencies, endorsed Initiative 502 in an effort to address the racially disproportionate impacts of current marijuana laws, said Jon Gould, the Alliance’s deputy director.
Marijuana usage is similar between whites and African-Americans, but blacks are three times as likely to be arrested, charged and convicted of marijuana-related crimes, said Gould. Children “end up paying a terrible price for the disproportionate enforcement” when their parents’ criminal records hinder their ability to get jobs, public housing or federal student aid, such as Pell grants, he said.
“The status quo is not working for children, particularly children of color. Public policy ought to move us further toward racial equity and justice, and Initiative 502 is one step forward to that,” said Gould.
I-502, the first marijuana-related initiative on the statewide ballot in 14 years, would allow and heavily tax sales of up to one ounce of marijuana from state-licensed pot stores to people ages 21 and over, and would also stiffen driving-under-the-influence laws related to marijuana.
Gould and Children’s Alliance board member Don Scaramastra acknowledged that the endorsement might be controversial; some opponents of the initiative contend that legalized marijuana will lead to more use by minors.
That was the reason cited by the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention; it officially came out against I-502 Monday. Marijuana use is the top reason that teens enter treatment in Washington, and students carrying a D average were four times more likely to have used pot in the past year than students with an A average, according to the group’s statement.
“Alcohol is currently highly regulated, yet is the #1 drug used by Washington youth,” according to the group’s statement. “Youth typically get adults to buy them alcohol from stores and would do the same with marijuana under I‐502.”
Scaramastra noted that I-502 would continue marijuana possession laws for people under 21. “The law does not make marijuana use okay for minors,” said Scaramastra, a Seattle attorney. But weighed against the consequences of what Scaramastra views as disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws, he decided to vote to endorse I-502.
The Children’s Alliance, founded in 1984, is an active force in Olympia lobbying for a children’s social safety net, including on health, nutrition and child welfare issues. Recently, it prioritized issues related to racial equity, and the group has considered taking a stand on I-502 since April, Gould said.
Gould said the estimated $560 million a year in new tax revenue generated by I-502 was not a factor in the Alliance’s endorsement.
He said the Alliance believes that marijuana usage by teens can be tamped down by prevention strategies, such as those that reduced tobacco use by kids. “From that, we concluded that appropriate public messages and limits on advertising, as well as other interventions, can reduce teen use without criminalizing adult behavior.”