By Rick Steves and Mary Helen Roberts
This is the second of two commentaries for and against Initiative 502. For the argument against it, click here.
Initiative 502 allows us to answer some simple questions regarding current policy on marijuana: Are our current marijuana laws working? Is their enforcement a good use of our police, prosecutors, judges, and jails? Are they reducing marijuana’s availability and use, or increasing public safety?
We don’t think so. One of us is a travel writer who spends a third of each year abroad and has had the opportunity to observe how other societies deal with marijuana use. The other has served as a state representative for eight years, focusing both on the well-being and education of children as well as criminal justice issues. Both of us have shepherded our own kids through the tricky teen years, and both of us agree that our marijuana laws need an overhaul. That is why we are voting yes on Initiative 502, and we encourage our fellow Washingtonians to do the same.
For four decades, this nation has been waging a war on marijuana with the hope that arresting and jailing people who use marijuana will decrease its use and availability. Marijuana arrests now make up fully half of all drug arrests nationwide as well as here in Washington. Ninety percent of those are for simple possession only. Between 2000 and 2010, Washington spent close to $300 million on marijuana law enforcement. Snohomish County’s portion was roughly $14.4 million. Yet marijuana’s availability and use rates have not gone down. According to federal survey data, 363,000 Washingtonians have used marijuana in the last 30 days.
At the same time, we have allowed billions of dollars paid for marijuana to flow into the black market, enriching increasingly violent international drug trafficking organizations. The somewhat conservative RAND Corporation finds that an estimated $1.5 billion in U.S. marijuana money flows to the Mexican drug cartels each year. Lower British Columbia is awash in “B.C. Bud” that is being smuggled south by tunnel, tractor-trailer, and hockey bag. Even more marijuana comes from large marijuana farms in Washington’s national parks, on tribal lands, and in rings of rental homes that have been converted into indoor grow operations.
Opponents argue that legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults will increase use by youth, but they offer no data to back up this claim. The reality is that marijuana is already easily available to youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more high school students now smoke marijuana than tobacco. Teens consistently report it is easier to buy marijuana than cigarettes or beer. This makes sense when you consider that street dealers don’t check ID.
We can also look to the Dutch experience with “coffee shops” that sell small amounts of marijuana to adults. This policy has been in place since 1976, and youth marijuana use rates in the Netherlands are consistently lower than those in the U.S. To maintain this success, the Dutch make adjustments to the policy as needed. When lackadaisical enforcement, which allowed a proliferation of shops that weren’t following the rules, led to increased use by young people, the government tightened up. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of shops dropped 40 percent, enforcement of age limits improved, and youth use decreased.
The Dutch experience teaches us that, over time, lessons are learned regarding implementation of a new law. I-502 will allow management of marijuana while keeping both adult and youth users out of the criminal justice system.
We are not claiming that marijuana use is risk free. Nine percent of marijuana users will develop dependence. Excessive use can cause lung damage. But the number of deaths from marijuana use is zero. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 40,000 annual deaths from alcohol use, not including accidents or homicides.
Putting the health risks in perspective does not mean they don’t exist, or that we shouldn’t take them seriously. It is important to acknowledge that marijuana use is riskier for youth than it is for adults. This is why I-502 imposes an age limit of 21 and maintains felony penalties for people who provide marijuana to minors.
Arresting adult marijuana users to discourage youth use is an ineffective use of our criminal justice resources. Passage of I-502 will allow Washington State to collect and invest new tax revenue in proven evidence-based prevention programs. Such programs are available today, but we don’t fund them adequately. Instead, we continue to arrest adults, hoping this will deter youth use even though this flies in the face of decades of empirical data that show this approach just doesn’t work.
Kids aren’t dumb. They know marijuana isn’t as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. The failure of our current marijuana policy to stick to the facts and provide accurate, science-based information has undermined the credibility of law enforcement, teachers, and parents. It compromises our ability to provide accurate information about the actual harms of marijuana as well as other, more dangerous substances.
The bottom line is that it is not marijuana’s availability that drives youth use — it’s already available to any young person who wants it. Youth use of marijuana, like youth use of tobacco, will be influenced by robust, science-based, public health education programs. It will be influenced even more by our commitment — as parents, teachers, and neighbors who care about kids — to set cultural standards and social norms that draw clear lines about what is okay for adults but not okay for kids. In addition, I-502 establishes tight advertising restrictions while dedicating funds to a comprehensive marijuana public health education campaign.
It’s time for a new approach to regulating marijuana. I-502 is a smart law. It has been drafted carefully and conservatively, and as a result has been endorsed by federal and local law enforcement, public health physicians, prevention and treatment professionals, elected officials from across the state and both sides of the aisle, and many community advocacy organizations including the Children’s Alliance, the NAACP, and the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans. Caring, thoughtful people and organizations have studied I-502 and support it.
Some are worried about the response from the federal government, but our constitution was designed to allow states to be the incubators of change. In the case of marijuana policy, it is well established that there will be no change that doesn’t start with the states. Since 1996, seventeen individual states, and even Washington, D.C., have adopted laws allowing medical use of marijuana, which is not recognized under federal law. The federal response has been to not interfere with people who follow the letter of those laws, and to focus federal law enforcement resources on the dangers posed by the large criminal organizations operating outside the states’ rules.
Ultimately, as with the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, the states need to demonstrate the political will to change course. Washington is ready to take the lead. We know that our current marijuana laws are not serving our communities well, and have not been for a very long time. Initiative 502 is a sound proposal for taking the first step in a new direction. Please vote yes on I-502.
Rick Steves is a travel writer and public broadcasting producer. Rep. Mary Helen Roberts is Vice Chairwoman of the House Early Learning &Human Services Committee.