The authors are employees of the ACLU of Washington.
Voters in Washington state, along with those in Colorado, made history on Election Day by passing laws that legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults age 21 and over. Washington's law, Initiative 502 (I-502), passed with a 55-45 margin, sending a clear message that the public is ready for a change in policy. We hope the adoption of these laws will be a watershed moment in how the United States deals with marijuana.
I-502 makes possession of limited amounts of marijuana (1 oz. or less) lawful for adults under state law. As of December 6, 2012, adults will no longer be subject to arrest under state law for possessing marijuana.
During a year-long rule-making process that will end in December 2013, the State Liquor Control board will create a tightly regulated system that licenses the production, processing, and selling of marijuana. Marijuana will be sold in stand-alone stores that are very similar to Washington’s familiar hard-alcohol stores. Private entities licensed by the state will produce, process, and sell marijuana, and it will be taxed at each step along the way.
The ACLU has long opposed the War on Drugs and its criminalization of marijuana. ACLU support for I-502 is part of our broader work of criminal justice reform. Our state and nation’s unfair marijuana policies have damaged civil liberties in many ways – eroding constitutional protections against searches and seizures, putting large numbers of individuals behind bars for nonviolent crimes, and disproportionately targeting people of color.
In Washington state, there were almost a quarter million arrests of adults for marijuana possession over the last 25 years. And though African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans combined constituted 14% of Washington's population, they were 25% of the people arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 through 2010.
The initiative came at a time of growing recognition that marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that consumes law-enforcement resources much better devoted to dealing with violent crime. I-502 gained broad support not only from social justice organizations and civic leaders, but also from health care professionals and some law enforcement officials.
Endorsers included two former U.S. attorneys, the former head of the Seattle’s FBI office, Seattle’s City Attorney, and both candidates for Sheriff in King County, which includes Seattle. Opposition from law enforcement officials in the state was muted, reflecting in part that many of them recognize the futility of current marijuana laws. The Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy group, also backed 502 because of the impact of marijuana arrests in breaking up families and harming communities of color.
Another factor in winning support was that the initiative’s sponsors acknowledged that marijuana is not a harmless substance. I-502 was drafted to mirror the success we’ve had in reducing tobacco use over the last two decades. Indeed, the initiative directs more than half of the tax revenue derived from legalized marijuana to health care, drug prevention, and public health education. This potential funding is substantial: the state’s Office of Financial Management estimated that legalization could yield nearly $2 billion dollars over five years to public coffers.
Of course, marijuana use remains a crime under federal law. Supporters of I-502 are hopeful that the federal government will not interfere with the implementation of the law, in light of the fact that the measure takes public safety and public health very seriously. Proponents of the new law hope to work with federal officials in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation to ensure that it is fairly implemented. We point out that the law’s tight regulation of marijuana will improve public safety and increase respect for law enforcement. Resources can be shifted to deal with violent crime, and police will no longer be seen as making arrests for a law widely regarded as unfair. We urge federal officials to respect the will of our state’s voters and not enforce federal laws against Washington residents who are obeying state law.
The campaign for I-502 shows how a well thought-out, pragmatic approach to criminal justice reform can lead to change considered unthinkable just a few years ago. Washington and Colorado look forward to operating as laboratories for a better public policy for marijuana use.
Since its inception, the War on Drugs has cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives. The civilians caught in the crossfire say it’s time for change.
The American problem with mass incarceration is less about crime than it is about how—and who—we lock up.
The international war on drugs isn't stopping drug use or trafficking—but it is ruining lives. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree on what we can do differently.