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3 Ballot Measures Would OK Pot Beyond Medicine

A marijuana bud at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. Colorado, Oregon and Washington could become the first to legalize marijuana this fall.
Ed Andrieski
A marijuana bud at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. Colorado, Oregon and Washington could become the first to legalize marijuana this fall.

Marijuana legalization is back on the ballot this year. California voters defeated a legalization proposal in 2010, but now similar measures have cropped up in three more Western states. This time around, some of the most intense opposition is coming from the earlier pioneers of legalization — the medical marijuana industry.

In Colorado, Amendment 64 "would regulate marijuana much like alcohol," says Howard Wooldridge, a retired police detective from Texas and a longtime campaigner for marijuana legalization. He has come to Greeley, Colo., to wave a sign for the measure. "This would free up precious police resources to go after real criminals, drunk drivers, etc., as opposed to wasting time on a green plant," he says.

Colorado already has a big medical marijuana industry, but this amendment to the state Constitution takes things further. It would allow people older than 21 to possess limited amounts of the drug for recreational use. People would be allowed to grow the plant for personal use, and the state would be directed to license and tax marijuana stores.

The amendment is ahead in the polls, but that lead is eroding as it gets more pushback from business groups. "We don't want to become the pot capital of the United States," says Roger Sherman, who runs the "Vote No" campaign. "That's not the image our economic development leaders want to use to attract businesses and conventions and tourists."

Luckily for those business groups, Colorado has competition in the race to legalize pot. Oregon has a similar ballot measure, though it's not polling well. Passage is looking likely, though, in Washington.

Initiative 502

On a misty morning near Seattle, legalization campaigners pose for a group picture, shouting, "Dismantling prohibition one state at a time!" for the camera. They're in a good mood because their initiative — called I-502 — is polling above 50 percent. The initiative would permit the sale of small amounts of pot at stores regulated and taxed by the state.

Alison Holcomb, a criminal defense attorney who has also worked for the ACLU, helped to draft the initiative, and she now runs the "Yes" campaign.

Colorado already allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Amendment 64 would regulate marijuana like alcohol.
Rick Wilking / Reuters/Landov
Colorado already allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Amendment 64 would regulate marijuana like alcohol.

"We've reached a place in our society, nationwide, where now a majority support marijuana legalization," Holcomb says.

She may be right: In a Rasmussen poll earlier this year, 56 percent of respondents favored legalizing and regulating marijuana. The Washington initiative is getting support from across the political spectrum, including two former U.S. attorneys, the Seattle city attorney and even the Republican candidate for Senate, Michael Baumgartner. The most vocal opposition, meanwhile, is coming from purveyors of medical marijuana.

"We're horrified," says Steve Sarich, who runs the "No On I-502" campaign. He is also a longtime producer of medical marijuana. At his Seattle "access point" — that's what dispensaries are calling themselves in Washington at the moment — he shows off a display case full of pot-infused products.

"We've got everything from caramels to peppermint patties to chocolate covered pretzels to Almond Joy," Sarich says. He even sells marijuana dog biscuits.

"We have dogs that have arthritis, and that really, really calms them down," he says. It's not clear how dog treats would be legal under the state's medical marijuana law, which requires a patient to have a doctor's recommendation.

Sarich says this new world of legal medical marijuana will be in jeopardy if I-502 passes. That's because he thinks the initiative is really a Trojan horse. One of its provisions sets a maximum THC level in the bloodstream of drivers — essentially, a blood alcohol limit for the active ingredient in marijuana. The problem is that THC lingers in the blood, and Sarich says regular users of medical marijuana would never be legal to drive, even when feeling sober.

"I wake up every morning with four times the limit in my blood," Sarich says. He consumes marijuana to relieve back pain. He says he'd have to leave the state or find a full-time driver.

"All they have to do is sit a half a block down the street and wait for me to pull away from the curb, and I'm going to jail for [driving under the influence of drugs]," Sarich says.

Sarich says he doesn't believe the initiative is about legalization at all — he scoffs at the idea that the state would really follow through with official, state-licensed pot stores — and he says the whole point of the initiative is to use the blood level limit to put the screws on medical marijuana users.

The initiative's sponsors say they had to include a blood level limit to win over cautious voters. Without naming names, Holcomb accuses some medical marijuana entrepreneurs of wanting to keep pot in a profitable gray area — unregulated and untaxed. It's a concern echoed by King County Sheriff Steve Strachan.

"For the rule of law, for a civil society, this ambiguity doesn't serve us well," Strachan says.

Strachan calls the current medical marijuana law a "twilight zone," one that generates cynicism and contempt for law enforcement.

"We've had some examples, since the medical marijuana law came into place, of people smoking marijuana in a public place like a bus stop. Well, it's not a place where you could smoke a cigarette, and they'll say, 'Well, it's medical marijuana, so I can do that,' " he says.

So the sheriff, who is also on the ballot this year, has come out in support of legalization, as has his opponent. He hopes it will clarify the status of marijuana under state law even as it creates a potential showdown with the feds. As far as that goes, he can only hope against hope that national politicians will reconsider the federal prohibition on pot, if confronted by outright legalization in the states.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.