Seattle Weekly’s medical marijuana columnist Steve “banned in China” Elliott has put up two posts about the internal conflict in the marijuana legalization movement in Washington state. This conflict has been my #1 source of headaches for the past year or so, and it’s starting to look like I need to invest in a lot more Excedrin.
With the failure of Sensible Washington to make the ballot for the second year running (disclosure: during the most recent signature gathering effort, I volunteered to help with their media relations and some IT projects, but have stepped back significantly since starting a new job in June), a new group called New Approach Washington (NAW) emerged with an impressive roster of supporters. NAW is headed up by Alison Holcomb and the ACLU of Washington and has some big names on its side, including Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, former U.S. Attorney John McKay and TV personality Rick Steves. This should be good news for everyone who wants to see the end of marijuana prohibition, but as Elliott points out, there’s a bit of a problem.
The initiative that NAW put together includes some provisions that aren’t perfect, but still a step forward – like the fact that individuals still won’t be able to grow their own plants unless they’re a medical patient – but it has one big provision that is absolutely toxic. The NAW initiative introduces a Delta-9 THC limit (5 ng/ml) that would become the equivalent to the .08 BAC limit for alcohol. The problem is that Delta-9 THC isn’t an accurate measure of impairment the way that a BAC reading is. As Elliott explains:
According to Alison Holcomb of New Approach Washington, fact sheets found on the FAQ portion of New Approach’s website [PDF] address [Sensible Washington’s Douglas] Hiatt’s objections.
The fact sheets assert that a 5 ng/ml THC level “is analogous” to a .08 blood alcohol content, but that assertion is unproven and quite debatable — with possibly hundreds of patient DUI arrests hanging in the balance.
Cited as evidence on the NAW site [PDF] is a scientific study which, crucially, measured THC levels of recreational — as opposed to medicinal — marijuana users. Typically, medical marijuana users, especially those dealing with heavy nausea and pain, smoke much, much more than recreational users, resulting of course in higher acute and residual THC blood levels.
For example, Denver Westword medical marijuana dispensary critic William Breathes tested three times over the proposed legal limit of 5 ng/ml while completely sober and unimpaired.
Breathes took the test when an identical limit of 5 ng/ml was proposed for Colorado. The Colorado Legislature backed away from the DUI limit when presented with the scientific evidence.
As a result, the reaction from some corners has been downright visceral. Some members of Sensible Washington disrupted a volunteer meeting for NAW last month, and the more moderate factions of the group have been trying to dial back the group’s rhetoric.
At the last monthly public meeting of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, an NAW representative heard an earful from a few folks, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected it to be. And CDC founding member Ben Livingston defended the NAW’s approach by pointing out how the issue of driving while stoned can be a difficult one politically. Although he also pointed out how someone he knew – a medical marijuana patient – had been written up for a cannabis-related DUI that morning merely by having a tail light out. Under the law now, any competent attorney can beat that charge. If NAW’s initiative passes, that likely won’t be possible any more.
And now an offshoot of former Sensible Washington members calling themselves Yes End Penalties (YEP) has filed their own initiative to the legislature. YEP’s initiative uses the language from last year’s Sensible Washington initiative (which lacks the part that directs the legislature to regulate it), and they’ll be collecting signatures soon. NAW’s initiative is I-502. YEP’s is I-505.
The conflict will continue to play out at next weekend’s Hempfest. NAW will insist that YEP’s approach is too radical while YEP will insist that NAW’s attempts to appease fence-sitters will alienate the motivated supporters you need to win. Both sides may be right, and that makes me as pessimistic as I’ve been about getting a legalization initiative passed in 2012. An initiative that can both end prohibition in a smart way and win at the ballot box is possible, but I’m not so sure we have one yet.