A worker at a cannabis dispensary weighs medicinal marijuana
A push to legalize marijuana on the West Coast is picking up steam as Washington lawmakers and pot proponents in California and Oregon propose separate measures.
The Washington state legislature will hold a preliminary vote Wednesday on whether to sell pot in state liquor stores, though even its authors say the bill is unlikely to pass. The same day in California, backers of a well-funded ballot measure to legalize marijuana are expected to file more than enough signatures to put the initiative before state voters in November.
Activists have also been busy in Washington state, with one group filing a marijuana-legalization initiative last Monday to put the issue on the November ballot. Activists in Oregon, meanwhile, say they have collected more than half of the signatures they need by July to allow a vote on whether the state should set up a system of medical-marijuana dispensaries.
The efforts are part of a national marijuana-legalization movement that has lately been emboldened by several factors, including laws allowing marijuana for medical purposes. The recession may be another reason. With many states suffering big budget deficits, for instance, legalization advocates say the states could benefit from new taxes on the sale of marijuana. In addition, the Obama administration appears to have taken a more-mellow attitude on medical marijuana as societal views about the drug evolve. In a poll last week of 500 adults in Washington state by SurveyUSA, 56% of respondents said legalizing marijuana is a good idea.
“We’re beyond a tipping point culturally,” said Roger Goodman, a Democrat representing Kirkland, Wash., and other Seattle suburbs in the Washington legislature who co-authored the legalization bill, known as HB 2401. “Now we’re at a point where we’re figuring out the safest way to end prohibition.”
West Coast states—especially California—are particularly in the vanguard of the marijuana-legalization push given the region’s more-liberal attitudes toward a variety of issues. Legalization measures in other states, such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, haven’t gotten as far, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Washington lawmakers will vote on a second bill next week that seeks to reduce the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a $100 fine from a crime with jail time.
Still, there is deep opposition to legalizing marijuana in Washington state from law-enforcement groups and chemical-dependency organizations, many of which argue it would make the drug even more accessible to teenagers than it is currently. Also many argue that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” meaning it will lead those using it to moveon to other drugs.
“What message does legalizing marijuana send to the youth of Washington?” asked Riley Harrison, a ninth-grade student, before a packed committee hearing this week in Olympia. “That you’re willing to gamble our future for a little tax revenue?”
Washington, California and Oregon are three of 13 states that have medical-marijuana laws, which permit patients with doctors’ notes to use the drug. The New Jersey legislature last Monday approved a medical-marijuana bill that will make it the 14th state and outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine is expected to sign it before leaving office next week.
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The legality of selling medical marijuana remains tenuous. Federal law considers pot illegal, and enforcement of state laws varies widely among California cities and counties. Last October, though, the Obama administration said it wouldn’t aggressively pursue users of medical marijuana where it is legal.
The legalization ballot measure in California was organized by a pot seller in Oakland, Calif., Richard Lee, whose group says the petition now has more than 700,000 signatures, far more than the 434,000 or so it needs to qualify for the November ballot. The measure would let local governments determine how to regulate and tax pot sales.
So far, Mr. Lee says that his business—which includes a medical-pot club and marijuana-business school dubbed Oaksterdam University, named after the city of Amsterdam where marijuana is decriminalized—has spent “a little more than $1 million” supporting the pot-legalization initiative. Mr. Lee says he is optimistic the measure will pass.
An April survey by the Field Poll found that 56% of California voters support legalizing pot and taxing its proceeds as a way of mitigating the state’s financial crisis.
The California measure’s opponents include various law-enforcement groups represented by lobbyist John Lovell. He says the California Peace Officers’ Association, California Narcotic Officers Association and California Police Chiefs’ Association are concerned that legalizing pot will lead more impaired drivers and embolden illegal-drug cartels to gain control over a legal industry. “The bottom line for all three groups…is we already have significant criminal and societal problems with alcohol abuse,” said Mr. Lovell.