Many law enforcement and drug treatment professionals in Washington may oppose a ballot measure legalizing marijuana for adults. But that would be hard to guess from the campaign over Initiative 502.
Supporters of I-502 have raised more than $5.6 million and are running a full-fledged campaign for the controversial ballot measure. Some of their ads even feature former Seattle law enforcement officials endorsing the measure.
The only organized opposition to I-502 is small – slightly more than $16,000 in total contributions – with most money coming from individuals or companies with ties to medical marijuana.
So where is the voice of law enforcement warning of the dangers of this major change in state drug laws?
“My opinion is everybody’s running for political cover on this because they think it’s going to pass,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.
Knezovich has been vocal about his opposition to I-502, both in public appearances and on his radio show that airs Saturdays at noon. He contends the state shouldn’t legalize another drug that will create a greater strain on society, and he discounts the claims of initiative supporters that large amounts of resources are going to the enforcement of small amounts of marijuana possession. Of some 22,000 bookings into the Spokane County jail last year, only 55 were solely for misdemeanor marijuana possession, he said; of those, only six spent more than 48 hours in jail.
“Tell me that is overcrowding my jail,” he said.
Two organizations that regularly weigh in on law enforcement issues, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, officially oppose I-502.Spokane’s new police chief, Frank Straub, hasn’t taken a public stance and says he has “mixed emotions” about the referendum.
“It is certainly a difficult drug for the government to regulate,” he said in an interview last week.
Straub said he’s concerned about the “public health implications” of legalizing the drug.
“We can’t minimize that while there are health benefits to marijuana, there are also some health challenges to marijuana,” he said.
The lack of opposition frustrates substance abuse counselors like Lynda Fralich, vice president of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council, who contends information about marijuana’s harmful effects is being left out of the discussion of I-502.
She’s ready with handouts on those effects for anyone who will take them, including a full-color poster that shows images of the effects of marijuana and other drugs on the brains of teenagers. Among the bullet points in her other handouts: that the number of regular marijuana users is on the rise for America as a whole and its youth; that students who regularly use marijuana do worse in school, are more likely to report symptoms of depression and less likely to go to college; that marijuana smoke is high in tar and cancer-causing chemicals and its use has been linked to higher risks of heart attack; and the number of people receiving treatment for marijuana addiction is up sharply.
Fralich contends that even though the initiative specifies marijuana is legal only for adults, more children and teens will believe it’s OK for them to use, too.
New Approach Washington, the organization supporting I-502, believes the lack of organized opposition from law enforcement is partly a result of the way the measure was drafted, spokeswoman Alison Holcomb said. The law has tough provisions for driving under the influence of marijuana – so tough that some supporters of legalized marijuana are opposed to the initiative – and restrictions on who can sell to whom.
The I-502 campaign clearly prepared to argue the kinds of issues that Knezovich and Fralich raise, even though that debate has not developed.
“We don’t say anywhere … that marijuana is relatively harmless,” Holcomb said. The group acknowledges health risks are associated with the drug.
Supporters say the choice is better left to individuals than government.
The pendulum of public opinion on marijuana has swung wildly, Holcomb said, from the 1950s with “Reefer Madness,” an early movie that dramatically overstated the dangers of marijuana, to the 1970s with Cheech and Chong joking about drug use to the 1980s with the “Just Say No” campaign. I-502 is an attempt to avoid those wild swings.
As to the argument that children will be more likely to use marijuana if adults can use it legally, Holcomb argues that’s not necessarily the case. Studies show more high school students use marijuana, which is illegal for everyone, than cigarettes, which are illegal for them but legal for adults.
“There are lots of things that we as a society need to be able to explain to kids that is OK for adults and not for them,” she said. Because of that, the I-502 campaign has prepared a brochure that explains why the law only legalizes the drug for adults, explains some of the dangers of smoking marijuana too young and offers advice on how parents can talk to their children about not smoking marijuana.