Seriously, can someone please explain? Because vague complaints about how it’s going to put small growers out of business and fear-mongering around DUI laws aren’t quite cutting it for me. Lord knows we heard enough of those criticisms here in Washington when we were considering our own legalization measure, Initiative 502. Now we’re four years in and, last I checked, the sky was still holding strong.
I’m no blind shill for legalization. I’m actually pretty wary of it. You see, I’ve spent the past year eating, drinking, and breathing cannabis policy—though not, believe it or not, actual cannabis—as the cannabis writer for Seattle’s feisty alt weekly, The Stranger, as well as a handful of other publications (Leafly included). I’ve seen firsthand how legalization can go sideways, screwing over patients, minority groups, and even consumers themselves.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say I’ve been one of the most vocal critics of Washington state’s legal cannabis system. I’ve documented our failures to effectively regulate dangerous pesticide use, our failures to welcome minorities into the legal cannabis marketplace, and our failures to provide for our most vulnerable medical marijuana patients. I’m fairly certain that many people assume I’m squarely in the “Repeal I-502” camp.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. I voted for I-502 in 2012, and I’d vote for it again today, warts and all. Without the passage of I-502, we wouldn’t be talking about these tough, vitally important issues. We wouldn’t be fighting to build the fair, well-regulated cannabis system we all want to see. Without a legal system, there’s nothing to make better.
“We wrote the most conservative bill that still legalized production and distribution for people and created the opportunity to create a legal market that could compete with the illegal market,” Alison Holcomb, the initiative’s chief drafter, told me recently. It was meant as a starting point, and it was designed to pass. “That’s what we were going for.”
For the most part, that’s exactly what they accomplished. The original I-502 is pretty bare bones. It does not mandate a pesticide testing policy, set aside licenses for minority groups, or make any attempt to address medical marijuana.
Here’s the thing: most of the failures we’ve seen in those areas have to do with how the law was implemented after it passed, or with subsequent legislation, not the way the initiative was originally written.
Prop. 64 itself lays the groundwork for what is, in many ways, a better system than ours.
That, perhaps, is the most important thing you skeptical California cannabis advocates can learn from our experiences: Passing a legalization measure is only the first step. The steps we take (or fail to take) afterward that are the ones that really matter.
Like many initiatives, Prop. 64 charges various state agencies with establishing certain rules. California Highway Patrol, for example, is required to develop protocols to detect impaired driving. Will CHP take a measured, science-based approach—one that considers the complicated factors that affect the level of THC present in a driver’s blood, as well as the degree to which it impairs a driver’s ability—or will they let fear dictate their decision? That has more to do with whether or not cannabis advocates are proactive in providing state troopers with the best available information—or whether they show up at all. It’s not hard to imagine how the acrimony that drives so much opposition to Prop. 64 from within the cannabis community could be extremely counterproductive down the road. Cooperation is key.
Believe me, I understand that lawmakers and regulators are not always cooperative themselves. One of the many failings of our political system is that “respectable” moneyed interests tend to get a more sympathetic ear than eccentric, ponytailed pot farmers. As I see it, that is why it’s even more incumbent upon those who care passionately about cannabis to be involved with regulation, not opposed to it.
I got to see firsthand what happens when medical marijuana advocates, unwilling to compromise on a few relatively minor points—points almost exactly the same as those being disputed in California, I might add—remove themselves from the conversation with regulators. Here, when those voices weren’t present in a meaningful way, crony capitalists got to write the rules, and those rules almost always put profits over patients. Washington’s curiously titled Cannabis Patient Protection Act is a stark example of that.
You’re worried about Big Marijuana? So am I. But from what I’ve seen, those forces arise not from legalization itself but from a failure to appropriately steward the market once it’s legal.
If we want to send a message, the Golden State is the bullhorn.
Prop. 64 leaves a lot of things up to the implementation process, but that doesn’t have to go as poorly as it has in Washington. You don’t have to accept a draconian 5 nanogram DUI limit. You don’t have to drop the ball on consumer safety regulations, like pesticide testing. You don’t have to limit licenses, inciting the type of fierce competition that minority populations, systemically disadvantaged by the drug war, simply cannot win. You don’t have to watch your existing medical marijuana dispensaries be shut out of the new system by unfair regulation. No, you can learn from our mistakes. In fact, Prop. 64 itself lays the groundwork for what is, in many ways, a better system than ours.
Judging from many of the measure’s provisions—a lower tax rate, a viable priority system for existing MMJ businesses, no mandated cap on available licenses, measures to ensure non-violent drug offenders have access to licensing, a delivery system, protections for small business, public consumption sites, etc.—its drafters have learned a lot in the four years since we Washingtonians passed I-502. I’m not always proud of how we’ve implemented the law here, but I’m very proud that my state was bold enough to be one of the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.
Now it’s your turn. You might not feel it from where you are, but the rest of the world is watching. One in eight Americans lives in California. The feds still regard cannabis as more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamines. If we want to send a message that that needs to change, the Golden State is the bullhorn.
If you are truly an advocate for progressive cannabis policies—not someone selfishly clinging to a system that works for them, even while it fails so many others — you will take this rare opportunity to push those policies forward, not stymie them. You will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Most importantly, you will wake up the day after it passes, take a moment to let it sink in, and then get right back to work making sure it’s implemented as fairly and effectively as possible. Don’t fight the future, fight to shape it.