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Published: Sunday, January 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A practical approach to marijuana control

Initiative 502 is an initiative to the Legislature that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana under Washington state law. It would authorize the Liquor Control Board to license Washington businesses to produce and sell limited quantities of marijuana to adults 21 and over. It would also impose a new excise tax and earmark revenues for substance abuse prevention, research, education, and health care. Retail sales tax, and part of the excise tax, would go to the state general fund and local budgets.
New Approach Washington, the campaign supporting I-502, submitted approximately 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office at the end of December -- many more than the 241,153 valid signatures required to qualify -- so the proposal will be before legislators this session for their consideration. If the Legislature fails to pass it, I-502 will go onto the November general election ballot.
As three of I-502's 10 sponsors, we would like to share our perspectives on why Washington should pass this measure into law.
Our current marijuana laws support a dangerous black market, and I-502 represents an opportunity to catalyze national change.
Like alcohol Prohibition, the criminal prohibition of marijuana has not only failed to stop its use, it has allowed violent criminal organizations to reap enormous profits. These profits flow from a combination of marijuana's popularity among millions of Americans and grossly inflated black market prices. Turning this weed into a lucrative commodity that fetches hundreds of dollars per ounce has helped finance the current drug war in Mexico, which is responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 people in the past five years and destabilization of that nation's government.
Here at home, massive marijuana grows have been discovered in our Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot National Forests, damaging our public lands and putting hikers at risk of confronting armed guards. Marijuana is smuggled in from Canada by tractor-trailer, boat, airplane and tunnel. Organized criminals buy residences in suburban neighborhoods and fill them with gardens, inviting burglaries by rivals. In 2007, two people were killed in an Everett home used as an indoor marijuana farm by a ring of growers from Canada.
Forty years of escalating enforcement has neither cut off these supply lines nor diminished American demand for marijuana. The 750,000 arrests for simple marijuana possession reported nationwide in 2010 represented almost half of all drug arrests combined but just 4 percent of the 17.4 million Americans who admitted using marijuana within the past 30 days. The notion that smoking a joint should land you in jail is anachronistic, and it is undermining respect for our laws and those we ask to enforce them. Meanwhile, police officers and federal agents continue to risk their lives enforcing an ineffective law that is succeeding primarily in enriching criminals.
Ultimately, both state and federal marijuana laws need to change, but Congress is not likely to act until the states take the lead. By allowing Washington's marijuana consumers to purchase small quantities -- an ounce of "bud" at a time -- from regulated, local sources, I-502 represents a reasonable policy proposal that can begin to reduce the funding stream currently flowing to the cartels. To be sure, law enforcement will continue to play an important role in driving criminals from the marijuana market as we transition to a carefully controlled system, and more states will need to come online before we can have a significant impact. However, I-502 represents an important first step in turning the corner on a failed strategy that, like alcohol Prohibition, needs to be replaced by a tightly regulated legal market to reduce violence and improve public safety.
I-502 substitutes a cost-effective public health approach for the current misuse of our criminal justice resources.
Wise use of public resources is a hallmark of good government. Pragmatism should be the rule rather than the exception, and policy choices should be regularly reviewed and subjected to objective cost-benefit analysis. Under such an approach, our current marijuana laws would not measure up.
Treating marijuana use as a crime, rather than a health issue, is not a good use of taxpayer dollars. Every marijuana possession arrest represents time that a police officer could have been walking a beat, preventing an assault or solving a burglary. Marijuana cases distract our prosecutors and public defenders from more serious matters. They clog our courts and waste jail space.
The good news is that we know how to do better. Science and solid economic analysis tell us that evidence-based education, prevention and treatment are much more cost-effective strategies for avoiding and reducing problematic marijuana use than arresting people and locking them up. Using the criminal justice system to discourage marijuana use is overkill, an expensive strategy more consistent with a desire to punish behavior that makes us uncomfortable than a plan for promoting public health. It's a social, cultural choice rather than one grounded in science.
Consider, and compare, our approach to tobacco. In 1965, 42.4 percent of American adults were smokers. In 2010, that number had dropped to 19.3 percent. We have been able to cut smoking rates in half through public education, advertising controls, labeling requirements and health care, without arresting anyone for possession of cigarettes. It's reasonable to believe we can have similar success in discouraging marijuana abuse with similar strategies.
We can also look to the experience of The Netherlands, where de facto legalization through "coffee shops" did not, in itself, affect use rates. Rather, policy changes like lowering and then raising the age limit, and increasing and then decreasing number of shops that could be licensed, had direct impacts on use. The same kinds of controls can be applied here, and it is important to note that youth marijuana use rates in The Netherlands consistently remain lower than those in the United States.
In addition to helping preserve vital services like our Basic Health Plan and community health centers, I-502's new excise tax on marijuana sales will be used to establish a new marijuana hotline that would operate similarly to Washington's successful Tobacco Quitline, and also to establish media-based public education campaigns that provide medically and scientifically accurate information about the health and safety risks posed by marijuana use. Marijuana labeling and advertising will also be required to provide such information, and advertising will be subject to restrictions that minimize exposure to people under 21. Finally, a new marijuana DUI threshold will ensure we communicate a strong message that driving while impaired is not acceptable.
We have sound, cost-effective options for discouraging marijuana abuse outside the criminal justice system. Let's pass I-502 and put our law enforcement resources to better use.
I-502 reflects careful consideration of how best to protect children and adolescents from the risks of marijuana use.
Any proposal to legalize marijuana for adults should include careful planning for how to minimize the risk to youth, who are more vulnerable to the health risks posed by marijuana use. I-502 reflects such considerations. It contains a number of provisions that incorporate lessons from our successes and failures with alcohol and tobacco, and it incorporates a plan for evaluation from the outset.
There is reason to find inspiration in our work around youth alcohol and tobacco prevention strategies. Smoking by high school students has decreased sharply in the past 15 years, with 36.4 percent reporting having smoked a cigarette in the preceding 30 days in 1997 but only 19.5 percent in 2009. In 1999, 50 percent of high school students were current drinkers; that number dropped to 41.8 percent in 2009. Clearly, prevention can work. It is also possible to change the prevailing norms regarding youth substance use without criminalizing adult behavior.
However, relentless promotion of alcoholic beverages, cheap prices and social norms that remain permissive of underage drinking pose significant hurdles to further advances. I-502's provisions hew more closely to the tobacco model, with tighter advertising and labeling requirements. The initiative also requires regular review of marijuana tax levels for purposes of facilitating adjustments that would further the goal of discouraging use while undercutting illegal market prices. We know that youth are more sensitive to such price adjustments than adults.
Other important features of I-502 include dedicated funding for the biennial Healthy Youth Survey, funding for youth prevention and education strategies, and robust evaluation of the implementation of the law, including youth use rates, by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Close observation of the law's impacts allows for informed adjustment as we proceed.
It is possible to design a marijuana law reform proposal that protects youth while decriminalizing adult use. Initiative 502 is an excellent example of such an effort, and the process for reviewing and responding to its impacts is already built in.
About the authors
• John McKay is a law professor at Seattle University and a former United States attorney for the Western District of Washington.
• Rick Steves is a travel writer, public broadcasting producer, founder of the Edmonds-based travel company Europe Through the Back Door, and author of "Travel as a Political Act."
• Roger Roffman is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington and a private practitioner specializing in treating marijuana dependence.

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