Timing, strategy are key to legalizing marijuana

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Monday, June 27, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — Deciding how and when to deliver a measure legalizing marijuana to voters was easy.

Deciding exactly what to write in the initiative took longer — right up to when authors filed it earlier this month.

One of the last decisions they made, for example, was to require that pot

be sold in new state-licensed marijuana-only outlets, not existing state-owned liquor stores. Polling showed soft public support for using state liquor stores, and recent efforts to get the state out of the liquor business added another potential complication.

“It came down to not wanting to get in the middle of the liquor wars by going into those stores,” said Blair Butterworth, a Seattle political consultant involved in the process.

A balance between polling and policy typified the political spade work done by those who spent months crafting the 72-page measure, which would make Washington the first state to legalize and tax marijuana use by adults.

Driving the effort is a coalition of prominent legal and political forces including former U.S. Attorney John McKay, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and the American Civil Liberties Union. There also are prominent personalities such as nationally known Edmonds travel author and TV host Rick Steves.

Next month, supporters with initiative petitions will hit the streets to gather signatures of registered voters. They need to collect 241,753 valid signatures by the end of this year to keep their hopes alive.

Knowing the difficulty of passage, backers agreed last year on an atypical and elongated route to the ballot.

Rather than pursue an initiative to the people that goes directly to the ballot, theirs is an initiative to the Legislature. This means it would go to lawmakers in January. They can approve it, which isn’t likely. If they don’t act, it goes on the ballot in November 2012.

This course buys months of additional time to get signatures, raise money, organize a campaign and educate voters.

“It’s a great strategy,” said political consultant Christian Sinderman of Seattle, who is not involved in the effort.

And, Butterworth noted, next year is a presidential election, which means a higher turnout.

“In case there is some disillusionment of young people about those at the top of the ticket, this gives younger voters something to actually want to turn out for,” he said.

As proposed, the measure would allow those 21 years and older to buy marijuana at licensed outlets. The number of stores per county would be set by the state Liquor Control Board.

Taxes would be levied by the Liquor Control Board and could net the state an estimated $215 million a year in new revenue, according to supporters.

The measure would apply drunken driving laws to those driving under the influence of marijuana.

To do this, the state would establish a maximum level of THC in the bloodstream, along the lines of the 0.08 blood alcohol level that is the cutoff for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The initiative would ban marijuana growing in homes.

However, it steers clear of the state’s medical marijuana laws, which do allow qualified patients to grow pot.

Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, a longtime supporter of decriminalizing marijuana for adults and who is part of the coalition, said she thinks a majority of the public has been waiting for a measure like this.

“I think it’s one important step forward in trying to take a very different look at the war on drugs issue, and I think the public is very comfortable with this kind of approach,” she said.

Victory is far from guaranteed, of course. She anticipates there will be lot opposition.

“If they get a lot of money and the opposition says this will end civilization as we know it, you never know,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

More about the marijuana initiative

Details on the measure and its organizers can be found online at newapproachwa.org.

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