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Shawn Vestal: We took big steps on marriage and marijuana, but the journey isn’t finished

Ten years ago, our state took two momentous steps in one momentous election: We legalized recreational marijuana and we equalized marriage.

We were at the leading edge of both changes, and since then, a lot of the country caught up. We were the among the first states to legalize gay marriage – initially through the Legislature and then by referendum – and one of the first to legalize marijuana.

We rapidly absorbed these changes. For much of the time since, what was once novel came to seem ordinary – simply just and proper. Steps once deemed urgent and dramatic simmered into normalcy.

And yet these new normals began far more tenuously than we might remember.

And their future is far from settled.

The right for gay couples to marry has suddenly come to seem more precarious than it once had. Our congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, voted Thursday against the bill protecting the marriage rights for gay people, though that bill seems certain to become law. And in a political environment of ugly, resurgent homophobia, the Supreme Court seems poised to sanction further discrimination against gay couples on religious grounds.

And while the explosive growth of marijuana sales has not been greeted with a similar court challenge, the 21 states where recreational pot is legal face the future possible complications of a long-overdue change at the federal level – which would bring with it a host of regulatory and legal challenges.

In other words, a decade after those momentous steps, we’re not at an end.

We’re still in a middle.

As time has passed, the public support for marriage equality has grown so dramatically that it obscures how slim the margin of support for it was just a few years ago.

These days, 71% of the public – and 55% of Republicans – in recent polling support the legal right to marry for all.

Back in 2012, it was around 50-50.

When our Legislature passed, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed, a law legalizing same-sex marriage early in 2012, it displaced a law specifically forbidding it. Opponents of the new law forced a referendum but lost; 54% of Washington voters approved same-sex marriage.

Out of more than 3 million votes cast, the winning margin was 228,630 votes.

In Spokane County, it’s worth remembering, the referendum failed. Fifty-six percent of voters here wanted to maintain a prohibition on same-sex marriage.

Similarly, backing for legalizing marijuana was a 50-50 proposition a decade ago, according to Gallup polls. But 56% of Washington voters – and 52% of Spokane County voters – approved legalizing pot for recreational use.

That vote exposed a vast black market. Pot sales started strongly and grew year upon year; more than $1 billion in marijuana has been sold legally in each of the past four years. More than $2 billion has flowed into state coffers overall, and that doesn’t include local sales tax revenues.

The first actual sale didn’t occur for 1½ years. In July 2014, the first legal marijuana transactions occurred. (In Spokane, the first man at a local register – wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, holding his purchase aloft and shouting “Go Washington!” – quickly discovered that things had not changed so completely. He lost his job after appearing in every news story in sight, but his enthusiasm remained undimmed: “I regret nothing.”)

More than 20 states have legalized pot for fun since then, as well as the District of Columbia. The latest Gallup poll shows 68% support for legalization of marijuana. Even among people who attend church weekly, it’s at 46%, for heaven’s sake.

Yet it remains, absurdly, a Schedule 1 drug under federal law – classified alongside heroin and cocaine. What’s emerged has been a complex web of legality, in which states operate their own regulated markets.

But the growing support for legalization at the federal level, as well as some court rulings that have exposed possible flaws in state markets, suggest the road to a possible national market could be a rocky one. That could affect those who grow, sell and use it in states like Washington.

The legal issues around gay marriage – which are much different, as well as more fundamental in terms of human rights – are quite a bit less shaky. Three years after Washington’s referendum, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states were constitutionally required to recognize and license same-sex marriage.

This, plus the soaring public support for gay marriage rights, plus the increasingly visible reality of happy, committed, married gay couples in the culture, has given it the veneer of a settled matter. But politicized homophobia – which slunk underground for a time – has surged back to the fore with a grab-bag of sexual panics that have brought unabashed gay-bashing back to the public square.

And the new Supreme Court majority has signaled its inclination to continue time-traveling backward, with a high likelihood it will advance the ability of business owners to discriminate in the name of religion. Justice Clarence Thomas directly called on the court, in a concurring opinion in the Dobbs debacle, to “reconsider” its rulings on contraception and same-sex marriage.

In this environment, it was good to see the federal law guaranteeing the right for all people to marry passing the Senate and then the House.

McMorris Rodgers, lamely, voted against it. You would not expect better, unfortunately.

But it shows that however far we think we’ve come, there’s further still to go.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or at

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