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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

October 26, 2012 at 3:40 PM

Washington Initiative 502: both sides of the debate

Washington Initiative 502 has supporters and opponents. University of Washington Election Eye researched each and brings you both sides of the debate.

Rick Steves speaks at a rally in Leavenworth, WA. (Photo courtesy of Mark Harrison of The Seattle Times)

SEATTLE — If you want to know where your chicken fillet comes from, you definitely want to know where your marijuana comes from. Chances are, your dinner wasn’t smuggled under the US-Canada border by a violent narcotics gang.

That’s one of the arguments for the passage of Initiative 502. Supporters of I-502 want to allow consumers the choice of knowing where their weed comes from—giving the public peace of mind that their dollars aren’t indirectly supporting society’s seedier elements.

“It’s just common sense,” travel guru and I-502 backer Rick Steves said in a telephone interview. “Whatever you’re consuming, you want to know where it’s coming from.”

Steves has been canvassing the state in support of the passage of I-502, which would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana in the state of Washington. According to Steves, a key benefit of the proposed measure would be to limit the power of the narcotics gangs that have historically dominated the black market for marijuana. By allowing the taxed sale of marijuana, Washington State would achieve the dual benefit of filling state coffers while also limiting the influence of drug gangs.

Additionally, the legislation would allow state authorities to oversee the cultivation, harvest, transport, and sale of marijuana. Given the choice, Steves said, consumers will overwhelmingly purchase their drugs from reputable sources. Drawing a connection to Prohibition, where “we had people dying from poisoned gin,” Steves believes the passage of I-502 will help protect consumers.

“In the Netherlands, they haven’t arrested anyone for marijuana in 25 years,” Steves said. “You’d be crazy to buy something on the street.  People go to a reputable coffee shop that’s been licensed by the government.”

“Now, we’re not going to have a coffee shop model [like the Netherlands]; we’re going to have a liquor store model,” Steves added. “Everything you’ll get will be licensed from Washington state growers. It’s smart from a consumer protection point of view. When there’s a black market criminal element, it makes sense to avoid that.”

Not everyone is so sure about I-502. On the other side of the debate is Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. Franklin, who boasts 20 years of experience in the substance abuse and mental health fields in various roles, believes it makes more sense to modify the existing frameworks for enforcement and prosecution.

Franklin concedes that the current system isn’t perfect, but such a drastic change isn’t in anyone’s best interests. Rather, Franklin believes that working inside the current system offers the best chances to limit access to marijuana.

“The current system is flawed,” Franklin wrote in a recent online chat with the Seattle Times. “However, legalizing an addictive substance is overkill. [We should] work to fix the enforcement system rather than legalizing across the board.”

Support of the bill varies widely, depending on location. A University of Washington poll cited by the Times has Eastern Washington voters against the measure by a 51 percent to 41 percent margin.  Even in Yakima County, which struggles to contain outdoor grow operations, Sheriff Ken Irwin doesn’t see I-502 being beneficial. Irwin told Times reporter Jonathan Martin that the pro-502 crowd’s argument that legalization would hamstring the area’s narcotics gangs wasn’t a likely outcome.

“To think that by legalizing marijuana, the cartels would be out of business is just naive and absurd,” Irwin was quoted as saying. “Criminals are criminals. They would find a way to undercut the price.”

Steves disagrees with that point. He believes that consumers will eschew street transactions to buy their weed from state-sanctioned dispensaries.

“I just don’t agree with that,” Steves said. “It’s dangerous to sell drug so there has to be a pretty significant margin built in. I think that if people are given a choice, they’re going to buy from reputable source rather than a criminal source. Of course it’s going to be taxed, but I think when you take the criminal risk out, criminals can never compete on price.”

“It’s going to be a careful dance to figure out how much to tax it,” Steves concedes. “If it’s too cheap, then there’s a risk that it will be too easy for young people to get it. If it’s too expensive, then you’re opening up for the black market. There’s a sweet spot in the middle that we have to find.”

Whatever happens on election night, the legalization issue won’t end there. Many believe that I-502 would directly controvert elements of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Putting Washington State at odds with the Federal Government might lead to legal challenges – former US Attorney John McKay said in the same Seattle Times chat that the courts will eventually decide the issue.

Comments | More in Local, State | Topics: Derek Franklin, Initiative 502, John McKay

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The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


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