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IN OUR OPINION | The pros and cons of retail marijuana
Prohibition didn’t work, or so lawmakers learned more than 80 years ago. But the parallels between America’s experiment with the Eighteenth Amendment and the legal sale of marijuana likely end there.
On July 8, Washington got into the weeds (pun intended). For some in law enforcement, jaded by trivial marijuana busts, it’s a long-time coming. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, an advisory board member of the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, issued a sanguine prediction: “Washingtonians know that, as in Colorado, governments both foreign and domestic will be watching to see how legalization progresses in the state,” he said. “And I imagine that, as in Colorado, lower crime rates, increased tax revenue, thousands of new jobs and continuing public support will indicate legalizing and regulating marijuana is one of the simplest ways to improve not just our criminal justice system, but our state governments generally.”
Thousands of jobs and improved government? Data will give us the good, the bad and the predictable.
First, the bad: There are more people driving stoned, according to the Washington State Patrol. In the first six months after Initiative 502 took effect, 745 drivers pulled over by law enforcement officers tested positive for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. More than half of those surpassed Washington’s intoxication threshold of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. In each of the last two years before legalization, the number was around 1,000. Experts will quibble: Are there more stoned drivers or more cops attentive to the signs?
The good: Under Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana, the lion’s share of tax revenue is earmarked for health care, youth drug prevention, public health and research. Much to the surprise of skeptics, the feds will allow the state to collect excise tax revenue. According to the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, the figure is $51 million for the 2015-17 biennium and $138.5 million the following biennium. That’s real money, but it’s just a blip in fully funding K-12.
And unlike liquor, I-502 made no provision for the state to share marijuana-related excise taxes with local governments in which the sales are generated. It should do so — copy RCW 66.08.210 — to fund the overseeing of regulations such as permitting and code enforcement. (Poulsbo chose not to go that route and banned marijuana-related businesses from operating in the city limits.)
Washingtonians who have a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis are now less vulnerable to arrest for possession. The disproportionate number of people of color prosecuted for marijuana possession will now, we assume, plummet. And according to a 2012 study by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project (www.marijuana‐arrests.com), there were 6,088 marijuana-possession arrests in Kitsap County between 1986 and 2010; the costs of making and processing those arrests, and of prosecution and incarceration, cost at least $7.9 million.
Washington’s grand experiment with the legalization of recreational marijuana has begun. Time, and data, will tell whether the experiment is working or is going up in smoke.