Should States Duplicate Washington Initiative 502?

Last month, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana through Initiative 502 (I-502) and Amendment 64 (A-64) respectively. These two ballot measures marked an historic shift in state-level drug policy, but they had several important differences. So, which approach should the other 48 states consider duplicating?

Nina Shapiro for Seattle Weekly reports that Norm Stamper, Seattle police chief and a marijuana legalization advocate, despite endorsing I-502, “now question(s) whether or not Washington state’s initiative needed to be as restrictive as it is.” Stamper also anticipates either judicial or legislative action will reexamine I-502’s more controversial provisions. Shapiro explains,

Well, before the election, 502 campaigners said that such restrictions were necessary to get a legalization initiative approved by the general public—drawing upon lessons learned from California’s failed initiative, Proposition 19, especially in regards to the DUI provision. As 502 campaign director Alison Holcomb told SW, post-election surveys indicated that California voters were worried about stoned drivers.

But Colorado’s successful legalization measure, Amendment 64, didn’t have any DUI provision. It also allows limited home grows (six plants, to be exact). And yet, Stamper points out, that amendment passed by a “very, very healthy” margin, with 55 percent of voters giving it the thumbs-up—almost the same margin as Washington’s more restrictive initiative.

NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) legal director Keith Stroup said the results in Washington and Colorado “open up the possibility that issues like DUID [driving under the influence of drugs] and home cultivation may not be as important as we initially thought.”

Despite Colorado’s perceived successful legalization approach, local officials have significant latitude when it comes to implementation, thereby stoking uncertainty. For example, the El Paso County Commissioners recently voted to ban retail marijuana stores despite a majority of their constituents voting for A-64. El Paso County Commission Chairwoman Amy Lathen levied a peculiar criticism when she argued a “huge portion” of the campaign to legalize marijuana was “just a complete lie to voters.” She continued,

“I have no problem in saying that… Telling people that we’re going to get have these great taxes for schools when it takes another very arduous process to do so, I think, is deceptive. There’s no question that that was deceptive in the campaign.”

This criticism is one that I haven’t heard very often, but regardless of its veracity, A-64 does grant local governments authority to make decisions like bans. If local government policymakers act in conflict with the will of their constituents, voters may seek accountability through the ballot box to ensure their voices are heard.

The ongoing dialogue in Washington and Colorado is arguably the most important state-level policy debate happening today—and it is about to start having a serious impact on other states too. Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Mason Tvert, who worked on the Yes on (Amendment) 64 campaign, explained to Shapiro that legislators in at least five states (Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire) have indicated an intent to submit marijuana regulation and taxation bills in the 2013 session.

For more of Reason Foundation’s work on marijuana legalization implementation, read the op-ed Leonard Gilroy and I recently authored for The Colorado Springs Gazette here, and additional writing here and here.

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