October 2012 Bar Bulletin
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October 2012 Bar Bulletin

I-502: A New Approach to Marijuana Built on a Decade of Work

By Tonia S. Winchester


On November 6, voters will weigh in on Initiative 502, a statewide ballot measure that, under Washington law, would legalize, regulate and tax the purchase and possession of marijuana by adults 21 and over. I am the outreach director for the New Approach Washington Campaign, the organization that filed the initiative. I am joined by numerous legal, medical and civic leaders in calling for a new approach. Like the dozens of elected officials, law enforcement professionals, racial justice proponents, faith leaders and public health advocates who have endorsed Initiative 502, we believe it is past time to recognize the failures of current marijuana policy and take a decisive step in a new direction.

The policy of marijuana prohibition has been an unmitigated disaster. According to arrest data submitted to the FBI by state and local law enforcement agencies, marijuana arrests have skyrocketed from less than a third of all drug arrests to more than half over the past 20 years. Ninety percent of these arrests are for possession, not growing or selling. However, despite the increased emphasis on marijuana law enforcement, marijuana use rates have not declined.

Here in Washington, the Office of Financial Management reports that police make more than 9,000 marijuana possession arrests each year. Just fewer than 3,300 of those arrests result in a conviction - nine per day. At an estimated cost of $375 per arrest and $1,888 per conviction, these cases represent a significant expenditure of law enforcement and judicial resources that could be shifted to other priorities and reduce caseload backlog.

Looked at from a different angle, those 9,000 possession arrests represent less than 3% of the 363,000 current (past month) marijuana users in this state. Tying up our police, courts and jails with marijuana cases is not making a dent in marijuana use. Laws that treat marijuana use as a crime are not respected and this undermines respect for the people sworn to enforce them.

Even more troubling is the racial disparity in marijuana law enforcement. Despite using marijuana at roughly equal rates, an African American Washing­tonian is three times as likely to be arrested, three times as likely to be charged, and three times as likely to be convicted for marijuana possession as his or her white counterpart. Unequal rates of involvement in the criminal justice system perpetuate unequal access to education and employment opportunities.

Finally, rather than promoting public safety, marijuana prohibition compromises it. Turning marijuana into a black market commodity has enriched violent criminal organizations just as alcohol Prohibition lined the pockets of gangsters. Its value inflated by its illicit status, marijuana is now a multibillion-dollar industry. The U.S. marijuana market comprises an estimated range of 20% to 60% of Mexican cartels' profits. Additional money flows to motorcycle and Asian gangs operating in British Columbia. Domestic growers make up another segment of the market.

Here in Washington, our newspapers report rings of suburban homes being turned into clandestine greenhouses, vineyards being laced with marijuana plants, and tribal lands and national parks being commandeered by armed guards tending outdoor farms - endangering visitors and destroying ecosystems. The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that 93,000 marijuana plants had been seized just in July and August of this year, most being grown on public lands. Residential grows have been the sites of armed robberies and homicides in recent years.

The Fundamental Principles of Pro­fes­sional Conduct advise us that "[l]aw­yers, as guardians of the law, play a vital role in the preservation of society.… Within the framework of these principles, a lawyer must with courage and foresight be able and ready to shape the body of the law to the ever-changing relationships of society." Decades of prohibitionist marijuana policy have not served our society well. Our current laws do more harm than good. It is time to reshape marijuana policy and Wash­ing­ton is well positioned to lead the way.

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