Pot, gay marriage top state stories

SEATTLE — People in Washington decided that marijuana, long derided as a dangerous drug that could lead to more harmful addictions, wasn’t so bad after all. Initiative 502, legalizing pot for adults, was easily approved in November and that sweeping change to drug policy was voted the state’s top news story of 2012 by Associated Press member editors.

The other top news items of the past 12 months included another vote by Washingtonians, this one affirming gay people’s right to marry, as well as the expensive, hard fought governor’s race, a local soldier accused of massacring civilians in Afghanistan and large, destructive wildfires in central and eastern Washington.

Here are 2012’s Top 10 Washington stories, in order:

1Legalizing pot: In a move that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, Washingtonians legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The successful initiative had the support of many elected leaders, as well as current and former law enforcement officials, who said prohibition no longer makes sense. So now what? That’s the question being asked here and in Colorado, which passed a similar measure. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and there’s no firm indication yet what action the Justice Department might take against states or businesses that participate in the nascent pot market. Washington’s new law decriminalizes possession of up to an ounce for people over 21. But selling marijuana remains illegal for now. The initiative gave the state a year to come up with a system of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores.

2Gay marriage: In December, gay marriage ceremonies took place across the state, including a large gathering at Seattle City Hall. The weddings were held after Washington voters passed same-sex marriage by popular vote. Referendum 74 had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved R-74. Washington joined Maine and Maryland as the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. Six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — and the District of Columbia already allowed gay marriage. The other states’ laws were enacted either by lawmakers or court rulings.

3Private liquor sales: Beginning in June, grocery shoppers could pick up whiskey, vodka and gin along with their milk, bread and breakfast cereal at Washington’s grocery stores. That’s when a measure approved the previous year by state voters allowing retail stores to sell liquor went into effect. The move kicked the state out of the booze business, which it had tightly controlled since the end of Prohibition. While many appreciated the convenience, others grumbled that prices spiked and selection was poor compared to what state liquor stores used to offer.

4Inslee defeats McKenna: It was close, but in the end Democrat Jay Inslee prevailed over Republican Rob McKenna, continuing a long winning streak in governor’s races for Inslee’s party. Inslee, McKenna and outside political groups raised and spent some $40 million in the contest. McKenna, the state’s attorney general and a former King County councilman, was seen as the GOP’s best candidate in many years. Republicans last won a Washington governor’s race in 1980, when John Spellman was elected. Inslee, a former longtime congressman, will be sworn in mid-January.

5Afghanistan massacre: In March, it was revealed that a soldier from Joint Base Lewis- McChord was the suspect in the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians. Prosecutors said Robert Bales left his remote base in southern Afghanistan early on March 11 and attacked two villages. Nine children were among those killed. The 39-year-old Bales faces premeditated murder and other charges, and the Army says it will seek the death penalty. Bales’ defense team, led by prominent Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, has said the government’s case is incomplete and a key issue going forward will likely be whether Bales, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder.

6 Wildfires: Destructive wildfires burned across the West during the hot, dry summer, and Washington state was not spared. Among the largest was the Taylor Bridge fire, which began in early August near Cle Elum. The fire blackened more than 36 square miles, or 23,500 acres, and destroyed nearly 100 structures. Even bigger was the Wenatchee Complex of fires in Chelan County. It burned more than 80 square miles. Many communities struggled with dangerous air conditions for weeks as smoke lingered.

7Education funding: In January, the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature wasn’t adequately funding K-12 education, something lawmakers are bound by Washington’s Constitution to do. The Legislature has until 2018 to fix things, but justices want annual reports showing measurable progress. Lawmakers filed their first in September, but last week the Supreme Court said they weren’t making enough progress and better have more details next year. The Supreme Court’s ruling will hang over the 2013 Legislature as lawmakers scramble to comply with the McCleary decision.

8 Josh Powell: Shortly after a social worker dropped his two sons off for what was supposed to be a supervised visit on Feb. 5, Josh Powell locked the social worker out of his rental home in Graham, attacked his boys with a hatchet and ignited the home in a gas-fueled inferno. Powell and his boys, ages 5 and 7, died. Powell was the only person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell, from their home in West Valley City, Utah, in 2009. He was never arrested or charged in the case, and a month after she vanished, he moved with his boys to Washington state.

9Seattle sports arena: Seattle has been without men’s professional basketball since the Sonics skipped town to Oklahoma City in 2008. In October, local officials signed off on an agreement to build a $490 million basketball and hockey arena. The hope is the NBA will come back, though no team has been secured, and just maybe a professional hockey team could also be found. But don’t buy tickets yet. The deal struck with San Francisco-based hedge fund manager Chris Hansen to build the arena is contingent on an environmental review, and the Port of Seattle and others oppose putting the new facility next to the existing sports stadiums south of downtown, saying traffic would be even more of a mess.

10Rainier ranger shot: On New Year’s Day a Mount Rainier National Park ranger was fatally shot following a traffic stop, and the 368-square-mile park was closed as dozens of officers searched for the armed gunman over snowy and rugged terrain. The body of a troubled Iraq war veteran authorities say killed 34-year-old Margaret Anderson was later found face down in deep snow. Anderson was a mother of two. Her husband also worked at Mount Rainier as a ranger.

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