February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

I-502: Reforming the Criminal Justice System

By Mark Cooke and Doug Honig


Voters in Washington, along with those in Colorado, made history on Election Day by passing laws that legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adults age 21 and older. Washington's law, Initia­tive 502 (I-502), passed with an 11-point margin, sending a clear message that the public is ready for a change in policy.

The impact of the vote was seen even before I-502 went it effect on December 6. Prosecutors in several major counties dropped cases against people arrested under the existing marijuana law. They said it didn't make sense to pursue prosecutions for conduct that soon would be legal. They also realized it would be difficult to get a jury to convict.

I-502 makes possession of limited amounts of marijuana (1 ounce or less) lawful for adults under state law. As of December 6, adults were no longer subject to arrest under state law for possessing marijuana.

During a yearlong rule-making process that will end in December, the State Liquor Control Board will create a tightly regulated system that licenses the production, processing and sale of marijuana. Marijuana will be sold in stand-alone stores that are very similar to Washing­ton's bygone liquor stores. Pri­vate entities licensed by the State will produce, process and sell marijuana, and it will be taxed at each step along the way.

The ACLU has long opposed the so-called War on Drugs and its criminalization of marijuana. ACLU support for I-502 is part of its broader work of criminal justice reform. Our state and nation's unfair marijuana policies have damaged civil liberties in many ways - eroding constitutional protections against searches and seizures, putting large numbers of non-violent individuals behind bars, and disproportionately targeting people of color.

In Washington over the last 25 years, there were almost a quarter million arrests of adults for marijuana possession. And though African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans combined constituted 14% of Washington's population, from 2001 through 2010 they comprised 25% of the people arrested for marijuana possession.

The initiative came at a time of growing recognition that marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that consumes law enforcement resources much better devoted to dealing with violent crime.

I-502 gained broad support from not only social justice organizations and civic leaders, but health care professionals and some law enforcement officials. Endorsers included two former U.S. attorneys, the former head of the Seattle's FBI office, Seattle's city attorney, both candidates for King County sheriff, and the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

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