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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guest opinion: I-502 offers better approach to marijuana

Kim Marie Thorburn, M.D. M.D.

A ground-breaking marijuana law reform proposal recently began gathering signatures to be placed before the state Legislature in January. Initiative 502, supported by New Approach Washington, replaces marijuana prohibition with a public health approach that allows adults 21 and over to purchase limited quantities of marijuana from state-licensed and -regulated stores.

The initiative taxes marijuana and directs new revenue – estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually – to drug abuse prevention, research and education, as well as the state general fund and local budgets. If the Legislature does not pass it, I-502 will go onto the November 2012 ballot.

We are two of I-502’s sponsors. The others include a former U.S. attorney, the current Seattle city attorney, the two most recent presidents of the Washington State Bar Association, a state legislator, a prominent businessperson, and a University of Washington professor who is also a marijuana dependency treatment professional. Some of us are parents and some of us are churchgoers. We come from different walks of life and all of us care deeply about our communities.

As public health physicians, the two of us view I-502 through a medical and public health lens. Our goal is to improve the health of our patients and communities. And from our perspective, marijuana prohibition does more harm than good.

The United States now incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the world. We put one in every 100 adults behind bars. We represent just 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we house 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

As recently noted by Josiah Rich, M.D., and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine, the “war on drugs” has transformed the land of the free and brave into the world’s No. 1 jailer. Twenty percent of the people in state prisons and local jails, and more than half of federal inmates, are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

In the last two decades, the war on drugs has become a war on marijuana. In 1991, 29 percent of drug arrests nationwide were for marijuana; by 2009, that number had increased to 52 percent. And of those marijuana arrests, 90 percent were for simple possession.

What has the huge cost of incarceration bought us? Broken families, reduced earning capacity and homelessness – but not a reduction in marijuana use. More than 40 percent of all Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives. Few of us believe all users will be caught or that they deserve to go to jail, have a criminal record, or lose their rights to a scholarship or an organ transplant. The 760,000 arrests made nationwide for marijuana possession in 2009 represented less than 5 percent of the 16.7 million Americans who were current (i.e., past-month) marijuana users. Prohibition isn’t working.

But marijuana prohibition isn’t simply failing; it’s actively hurting us. Government budgets are a zero-sum game. Every dollar spent arresting, prosecuting and jailing a person for marijuana use is a dollar that could have been better spent on schools, family support services, community development or health care. I-502 recognizes that investment upstream – in preventive services that build healthy families and communities – pays much greater public health and safety dividends than handcuffs and jail beds.

Moreover, time behind bars compromises the physical and mental health of inmates. As Rich and his colleagues point out, “Locking up millions of people for drug-related crimes has failed as a public-safety strategy and has harmed public health in the communities to which these men and women return. A new evidence-based approach is desperately needed.”

New Approach Washington’s Initiative 502 is such an approach. We encourage you to sign the petitions to put I-502 before the Legislature and to support its passage.

Kim Marie Thorburn, M.D., served as Spokane County health officer and director of the Spokane Regional Health District from 1997 to 2006. Robert W. Wood, M.D., served as director of the HIV/AIDS Program of Public Health-Seattle & King County from 1986 to 2010 and is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington.
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