OLYMPIA – Elections are designed to place a punctuation mark on political disputes. Sometimes it’s a period; other times, it’s more of comma, pausing to allow one to take a breath before the argument continues.
That seems the case with Initiative 502, which as most of the world knows opens the door for adults to smoke marijuana in private. (Who among us hasn’t had a reprobate relative, old high school buddy or college roommate call to suggest they were planning a visit to, wink-wink, take in the air of democracy in the Evergreen State, or something equally prosaic?)
Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to I-502 knew that passing the ballot measure was just the start of a long process for state officials to wrestle with regulating what has so far been unregulatable: the growing, processing and selling of something the feds consider a dangerous drug of the highest order. There’s a full year of wrangling ahead on that.
Also left over from the campaign is a complaint stemming from an October rally in the Capitol Rotunda that featured television travel guru Rick Steves and state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia. Planned to generate support for I-502, the rally also drew opponents.
The latter were not vociferously opposed to smoking marijuana. In keeping with the peculiar nature of that campaign, these were folks who generally support the consumption of marijuana, at least for medicinal purposes, but didn’t like things embedded in the initiative, such as the amount of marijuana a driver might have in his or her bloodstream before being considered driving under the influence.
Considering that both sides at the event were supporters, if not active practitioners, of marijuana use, one might have expected a mellower exchange of ideas. Not so.
Both sides got loud. Words were exchanged. According to some people, there was some shoving or other physical contact involving Hunt and one or more opponents. Complaints were filed. Washington state troopers, who are charged with keeping the peace at the Capitol (except, of course, during floor debates in the House and Senate), were tasked to investigate.
Last week the Legislative Ethics Board ruled on a complaint from Arthur West, of Olympia, one of the opponents, which accused Hunt of “unlawfully using his influence to facilitate direct and conduct a partisan campaign rally in the rotunda.” Rallies and campaign signs aren’t permitted in state buildings, West said, and Hunt should be disciplined for assaulting opponents.
In point of fact, the Capitol is frequently used for rallies. Most are held outside on the north steps, but demonstrators regularly spill inside, bringing their placards with them. Groups for or against abortion rights, budget cuts, tax changes and any number of other causes regularly demonstrate at the Capitol; December 2011 was one long rally by the Occupy forces. And this wasn’t a partisan event in the sense that it was run by Democrats or Republicans.
Steve Valandra of the state Department of Enterprise Services said the state’s policy is to allow rallies and signage in the Capitol within limits, such as no signs on big sticks that can be used to damage property or hurt other people. And the I-502 people had a permit for their event.
The ethics board dismissed that part of West’s complaint and said it had no jurisdiction over any question of a possible assault. That’s up to the State Patrol, the board said.
The patrol investigated the case, spokesman Dan Coon said, and forwarded its report to the Thurston County prosecutor’s office without a recommendation on whether charges should be filed. Most of the time, the patrol does make a recommendation, he said; in cases involving state officials, however, it often leaves that to the prosecutor.
The prosecutor’s office got the report on Dec. 6 but hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to file charges, Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Toynbee said. Decisions on charging usually take a few weeks to a month, but this particular month was shortened by the holidays. A decision is expected soon, he said.
Most complaints about misbehavior at Capitol events wind up in the prosecutor’s office. They used to be rare, but not quite as much now. “It’s not common, but a number of political rallies have turned violent lately,” Toynbee said.