Washington and Colorado have become the first states to pass laws legalizing marijuana. In the election just ended, Washington's Initiative 502 and Colorado's Amendment 64 each are passing by about 55% of the vote. A similar measure in Oregon is failing, with only 45% of the vote. Massachusetts became the 17th medical marijuana state by passing Question 3, with 63% support.
Why Washington and Colorado? Was it because these were the two states in which Libertarian nominee John Hospers made the ballot in 1972? Probably not.
Washington and Colorado were among the earliest medical marijuana states, with ballot measures passing in 1998 in Washington and in 2000 in Colorado. They were not the first, however. California was first, with a ballot measure for medical marijuana in 1996. California voters were offered a legalization measure in 2010, and they rejected it.
Each case comes with specific reasons, and I can speak only for those in Washington, where I live. Medical marijuana has come out of the closet here, with open "dispensaries" all over Seattle. Police shut them down in Spokane and some other cities, but in liberal Seattle they thrive. We have a "Hempfest" here — a huge public music-and-weed celebration, every August. In the middle of the last decade, Seattle voters approved a measure making marijuana possession the lowest priority crime, and the new city attorney, Pete Holmes, stopped prosecuting simple possession cases in 2010.
Still, legalization was a battle — though not so much with the supporters of prohibition. Two more radical efforts to legalize, in 2010 and 2011, didn't get enough signatures to make the ballot. These measures would have repealed all state marijuana laws affecting people over age 18 and replaced them with nothing. The sponsors said the measures were bulletproof to federal challenge, because they created no law. They simply erased. But to Seattle liberals, having no regulation of the private marijuana market was too radical, and the sponsors could raise almost no money.
Then came the mainstream effort for I-502. It was not full legalization. It legalized possession of one ounce for adults over 21, continued the ban on private growing, and ordered the state to set up a system of licensing commercial growers, distributors and marijuana shops. The measure was backed by City Attorney Holmes, a Democrat; the former George W. Bush-appointed US Attorney in Seattle, John McKay, a Republican; travel entrepreneur Rick Steves, who has written extensively about Amsterdam; and the ACLU of Washington. The effort raised lots of money, got on the ballot, and was cheered on by the state's largest newspaper, the Seattle Times.
Mainstream politicians, however, were wary of it: Gov. Christine Gregoire, Democrat, opposed it, as did the Democrat and Republican candidates to replace her — because the measure conflicts with federal law.
Legalization was a battle — though not so much with the supporters of prohibition.
Initiative 502's most vocal enemies were the sponsors of the more radical measures of the two years before. Their beef was that 502 creates a "per se" standard of intoxication of 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. They noted that the Colorado initiative did not have this. They said the standard was unscientific, and would cause medical marijuana patients to lose their right to drive. These opponents had support in the medical marijuana community, part of which was against marijuana prohibition but for a "no" on 502.
The more mainstream supporters of 502 argued that the 5 ng/ml standard was not the main issue, and that legalization was. Vote for legalization, they argued, and if 5 ng/ml is the wrong standard, we'll fix it later.
The conservatives' argument against 502 was that smoking marijuana is bad, and that legalizing it for over-21 adults would encourage more people, especially more teens, to smoke it. They didn't spend any money on ads. And they lost.
The Colorado and Washington initiatives both appear to conflict with federal law. Now we shall see what the federal government does about it.