Initiative 502: Marijuana at a tipping point

In an election season when political statements seem laundered and starched and issues carefully calibrated with the “finger in the wind” test, one ballot measure has attracted one of the most unlikely collections of political bedfellows in state history.

Initiative 502 would allow people 21 and older to buy an ounce of marijuana from stores regulated and licensed by the state, where it would be taxed at 25 percent.

Who would have thought that one of the leading proponents for the initiative would be John McKay, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted major marijuana cases during his tenure?

Other supporters lack the tie-dyed shirts and Grateful Dead image often associated with the drug: a Spokane Baptist minister, a Seattle rabbi, the nonprofit Children’s Alliance in Seattle, international travel guru Rick Steves of Edmonds, a former FBI agent and a candidate for King County sheriff.

For those who are opposed, one might well expect Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force, to be an articulate and persuasive voice. He’s participated in many discussions of the issue, including a televised public forum in Mukilteo and a debate at a University of Washington lecture hall packed with 300 attentive students.

Who would guess that he would find himself on the same side of the issue, though for different reasons, as Jeremy Kelsey, a 34-year-old owner of medical marijuana co-opin Mukilteo?

Even if the initiative doesn’t pass in November, McKay said he hopes such efforts will help bring pressure to change legal policies toward marijuana. The federal government currently classifies pot as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as cocaine and heroin.

Slack, who has worked for 43 years in law enforcement, seems to shake his head in wonder at the prospect of not only Washington, but also Oregon and Colorado considering marijuana legalization efforts on the November ballot.

“Is this a freaking race?” he asks. “I don’t know if you want to be the first out the door to accomplish this.”

• • •

IMarijuana has a complex, controversial and polarizing history. It was characterized as a villainous drug in the 1936 movie, “Reefer Madness.” Legalization proponents refer to it as “humanity’s medicine.”

In 1998, state voters jumped into the political cauldron, approving an initiative allowing doctors, osteopaths and naturopaths to authorize use of marijuana for terminal or debilitating conditions, including cancer, glaucoma and severe pain.

“It’s been kind of a long evolution,” said Diane Hoffmann, a professor at the University of Maryland’s law school. She has studied the provisions of 17 cities or states that have passed medical marijuana laws, beginning with California in 1996.

With its Schedule 1 listing, the federal government considers the drug to have no medical value, she said. Yet some studies have shown that it potentially has therapeutic benefit, such as helping to stimulate appetite to combat the severe weight loss sometimes caused by HIV, and for reducing the nausea and vomiting often experienced by chemotherapy patients, she said.

Washington’s law allowing authorizations of marijuana for medical purposes can be used as a legal defense, but does not provide carte blanche protection from investigations and other law enforcement actions.

Federal authorities have stepped in numerous times to shut down dispensaries in Washington and other states they feel may be doing more recreational dealing than medicating.

Last month, they sent letters to 23 medical marijuana dispensaries in Seattle, saying that any businesses within 1,000 feet of schools or playgrounds must shut down within 30 days.

Heath care providers have come under scrutiny, too.

In August, the state Department of Health announced that two King County naturopathic physicians face charges of providing sub-standard care for treating more than 200 patients seeking medical marijuana during Seattle’s 2011 Hempfest.

Local law enforcement officials are trying to be respectful of people who have medical marijuana authorizations, Slack said.

But it can be difficult to navigate who is and who isn’t complying with the law, raising questions such as: Can multiple medical marijuana co-ops exist in one location?

“I grew up in a world of law enforcement where they had a pretty bright line: If you have dope, you have a problem,” Slack said. “All we in law enforcement want is for someone to tell us what the law is.”

Passage of Initiative 502 he predicted, would be a nightmare for law enforcement officials.

But Slack said he also worries about the impact it would have on youth, since anyone 20 and younger could still be arrested for pot.

“Who’s most negatively impacted by being arrested for possession? Our youth,” he said. “It impacts their ability to get jobs and get college funding. Initiative 502 doesn’t do anything for them — nothing.”

• • •

Jeremy Kelsey runs the Medical Marijuana Patients Network out of an office in a two-story industrial building just off the Mukilteo Speedway and overlooking Paine Field.

The co-op stocks up to 20 varieties of bud with names such as “lavender X train wreck” and “Mr. Nice.”

The dried marijuana leaves are stored on shelves in large glass containers, much like bulk herbs in a co-op grocery. He politely corrects those who ask how much it costs.

It’s a donation, he says.

Nevertheless, he requests a donation of about $240 per ounce.

The co-op also offers marijuana to qualifying patients in a variety of other forms, including salves, drinks, lollipops and even marijuana-infused cotton candy.

Kelsey said he takes pride in running the co-op both in accordance with state law and in providing quality products to patients. His shop was declared the gold cup winner for medical marijuana collectives in Washington by what may turn out to be the industry magazine, “High Times,” during a recent expo in Seattle.

Kelsey said he favors decriminalization of marijuana, what he calls “freeing the plant,” but does not support Initiative 502.

“The problem is, they’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said. The first step, he said, needs to be federal reclassification, moving marijuana out of the same category with cocaine and heroin.

Many local governments have problems coming to terms with collective gardens allowed under the state’s current medical marijuana law, he said.

Since federal law bans possession, manufacture and distribution of marijuana, he said he doubts federal law enforcement officials would simply allow the state do as it pleases — legalizing limited, open purchase of marijuana for recreational use.

“The fact is, they don’t have a letter from the feds saying they’ll be in agreement not to shut them down,” he said. Even if the initiative passes, the issue could be tied up in the courts for years, Kelsey said.

He questions where all the marijuana would come from to stock the state-licensed stores.

Will there be standards, regulations, guidelines — even agricultural subsidies, as farmers get now?

While the vote on the initiative might be close, Kelsey predicts it won’t pass.

Some people have compared the initiative to the ending of Prohibition, Kelsey said.

“It’s not. It’s different.”

• • •

It’s hard not to wonder: What was the pivotal moment? What was it that triggered John McKay’s pendulum shift from federal enforcer of marijuana laws, to outspoken critic, to endorsing an initiative to legalize it in Washington?

“I was sworn to uphold the law,” he says. “I could enforce the law again. It’s just a dumb law.”

McKay served as U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2007. He currently is on the faculty at Seattle University’s law school.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement officers, the amount of marijuana that can be stopped in any one year is a relative trickle of marijuana — valued at several hundred million dollars — compared to the estimated $25 billion in street value of the drug that makes its way into the United States, he said.

“The No. 1 organized crime activity is marijuana trafficking as opposed to any other drug,” McKay said. “The black market is dangerous and it’s killing people.”

McKay said he knew his endorsement of the initiative would upset some law enforcement colleagues.

“I had an obligation to speak out,” he said. “I had information that wasn’t in most people’s experience.”

McKay, 56, said he is not a marijuana smoker and won’t smoke it if it’s legalized.

Marijuana can be addictive and it “doesn’t make sense” for kids to smoke it, he said. But he believes the initiative’s plan to legalize, regulate and tax the drug is, like alcohol, a better policy than prohibition.

An estimated 14 million Americans regularly smoke marijuana, McKay said.

“It’s clear to me the federal policy needs to change … to allow adults to possess some modest amount of marijuana and consume it if they wish,” he said. “Marijuana prohibition is a failure.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

More on I-502

More information on Initiative 502, which would legalize the purchase of marijuana for anyone 21 or older, is available at the state Secretary of State’s website: www.sos.wa.gov/elections/.

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