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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: I-502 offers smart path to marijuana legalization

Since the federal government and Congress are unwilling to heed the wishes of the electorate when it comes to regulating the sale and distribution of marijuana for medicinal purposes, it’s up to the states to engage in pressure politics.

States are known as the laboratories of democracy, so it’s appropriate that they would also be the places to plant the seeds of sensible change.

Sixteen states have adopted medical marijuana laws, despite the fact that federal law considers pot to be more dangerous than prescription pain pills, and on par with heroin. Nearly 15,000 people died from pain pill overdoses in 2008, but nobody is calling for OxyContin and the like to be pulled from pharmacy shelves. Lethal overdoses of marijuana are unheard of, but pharmacies aren’t allowed to stock pot under federal law.

Facts and science have not been able to sway the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency or Congress, which passed a law in 1970 that remains the controlling authority over marijuana. So it’s up to public opinion and strategic agitating by the states to shake the federal government from its long slumber.

A November KING-5/SurveyUSA poll found that 57 percent of Washingtonians think the possession of 1 ounce of marijuana by an adult ought to be legalized. The public had already demonstrated that it is receptive to legalizing small quantities in a public health context when it passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998. So backers of Initiative 502 have tailored a measure that addresses those wishes. It would compel the Legislature to either pass it or put it on the ballot. In seeking public approval, I-502 supporters also added a strict DUI provision.

This incremental approach to providing a state-controlled framework for the sale and distribution of marijuana has irked proponents of a much broader-based effort to decriminalize marijuana. They pushed Initiative 1149, but failed to gather enough signatures. That measure would have broadly repealed civil and criminal penalties for marijuana use. Proponents make good points about I-502’s DUI provision, because the science on the effects of pot on driving is not solid.

Nonetheless, I-502 ought to be viewed through the lens of what can be realistically passed and adopted without federal interference. A state law that broadly decriminalizes marijuana would come in direct conflict with federal law. Any attempt to implement it would be dead on arrival.

I-502 is the better approach, because it reflects popular sentiment, which is the key to grabbing the attention of federal politicians. We believe the goal ought to be a rewrite of the federal law that classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug – the most dangerous kind. Gov. Chris Gregoire recently co-authored a letter with the Rhode Island governor seeking a federal reclassification.

Smart pressure politics from the states can help achieve that goal. Unrealistic attempts to remove marijuana from governmental oversight only serve to scare people.

Marijuana has medicinal value. It should be available to patients with a doctor’s prescription. I-502 would help make that a reality.

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