Move Aside California: Washington Could Legalize Marijuana Next Year

Drug policy reform activists, buoyed by polls showing a strong majority of voters in Washington support ending the government’s crusade against cannabis, are aiming to legalize marijuana by presenting the issue to the public on the November 2011 ballot. But here’s the strange thing: it’s possible their politicians might beat them to it.

Speaking to local media outlet The Stranger, state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D) says she plans on introducing legislation next year that “would legalize it, regulate it and tax it.” And this isn’t just some vanity bill, or one intended to just send a message, she says.

“We have been wasting scores of millions of dollars on arresting and jailing people who have done nothing more than smoke marijuana recreationally. That has ended up harming people and costing taxpayers tremendously. So it’s a very high cost to individuals and to taxpayers—it’s a wrongheaded policy that simply needs to be changed.

“I am dead serious about this,” Dickerson says.

It’s about time, too — though whether it be protecting civil rights or ending the Vietnam war, politicians never seem to do anything good without serious public pressure first forcing them to act. And it’s no different in Washington, where activists have been threatening to make the state legislature irrelevant by letting voters weigh in on the state’s marijuana policy directly by way of a ballot initiative.

One of the main groups leading the fight to reform the state’s drug laws is Sensible Washington, led by attorneys and long-time legalization advocates Douglas Hiatt and Jeffrey Steinborn. While activists in California and Colorado are eying the 2012 ballot — and the presumed higher youth turn-out of a presidential election — to press ahead with legalization ballot initiatives, Hiatt and Steinborn maintain that next year is the time to act if the state legislature doesn’t first.

“Looking at the bigger picture, it makes sense nationally as well as locally to repeal prohibition in Washington in 2011,” they write. “National legalization organizations are gearing up for a big push in 2012. Their resources could be used in tougher states if Washington were to legalize in 2011 …. Plus, if Washington State does not have an initiative running in 2011, the issue will be quiet for a year at a time when we need to make it louder. An early victory in Washington would be a powerful precedent in the 2012 elections for other states.”

Sensible Washington had tried to get a legalization initiative on the 2010 ballot — and with a January poll showing 56 percent of voters in favor of legalizing marijuana, the initiative may very well have passed. Unfortunately, organizers failed to collect the requisite number of signatures to get it on the ballot, and infighting within the drug policy reform community over the wording of the initiative — the ACLU of Washington wanted it to say more about how to regulate pot post-legalization — deprived it of some of the institutional it needed to get over the top.

Organizers hope to avoid those problems the next time around. And they say the issue’s “just too urgent to wait until it’s a sure thing,” with marijuana arrests in Seattle on the rise this year despite a vow from the city attorney to not prosecute any non-violent marijuana users.

“We all know the terrible toll of marijuana prohibition — 15,000 arrests in Washington every year, $100 million-plus of tax dollars wasted, dying medical patients being prosecuted for medical use, organ transplants denied to legitimate medical cannabis patients, people losing their children,” Hiatt and Steinborn write. “We lawyers see the dark side of prohibition in our work.” And while they no doubt applaud Rep. Dickerson’s efforts, they won’t be waiting around for any politicians to do what’s right.

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