My three-part look at the phenomenon of marijuana aficionados who choose to vote against marijuana legalization – catch Part I here.
Californians defeated Prop 19 in 2010, thanks in some measure to the Stoners Against Legalization who claimed it wasn’t True Legalization™, but merely a scheme to enrich Oakland marijuana heavyweights and a conspiracy to manufacture even more marijuana arrests.
In 2012, a then-record three states stepped up to try marijuana legalization: Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. And once again, the Stoners Against Legalization stood up with cops, rehabs, drug testers, and prison guards to oppose the measures.
Oregon mostly managed to avoid opposition to its Measure 80 among the cannabis community. There was some grousing about minor details, but generally the community was happy with the measure. That’s because Measure 80 was the continuation of the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act that had been perennially proposed by a local medical marijuana clinic tycoon and it was extremely generous and lax in its regulation of commercial cannabis.
It was also the only one of the three initiatives that year to lose at the ballot. While Colorado and Washington both won their elections with 55 percent of the vote, Oregon lost its election with only 46.5 percent. Oregon’s measure was the closest yet to the True Legalization™ that Stoners Against Legalization are always yammering about, but the lesson of its electoral defeat is lost on them.
Colorado had a bit more noise from the Stoners Against Legalization, but it was largely confined to Facebook among the TILTers (the “Treat It Like Tomatoes!” people) who have little effect or influence on the debate. Nobody living in reality believes there’s any shot in hell at getting a majority of voters to treat a mind-altering substance like we would a common backyard garden vegetable.
But Washington State? That’s where Stoners Against Legalization took the next step and became an actual organized opposition campaign.
No on I-502 Blames the Wrong Villain
As Washington State pursued its legalization plan, Initiative 502, there arose an opposition campaign called “No on I-502”, funded by some medical marijuana providers. For the remainder of the I-502 campaign, the blue-t-shirt-clad I-502 supporters, often led by PBS travel celebrity Rick Steves, would be hounded by the red-t-shirt-clad I-502 opponents.
Without much funding or events of their own to promote, No on I-502 was left to just show up at the Yes on I-502 events, heckle their speakers, and try to block their Yes signs with No signs.
Their tactics backfired and I-502 passed by a strong majority. The general public was not amused by their rude interruptions. Many voters who had grown weary of the liberties taken by medical marijuana supporters figured that if those people were so virulently against I-502, it must be something good.
Many of the scary predictions made by No on I-502 failed to materialize. They warned that marijuana would end up costing $600 per ounce. While initial problems with supply did lead to high prices, there now exists in Washington some of the lowest marijuana prices in the nation – below $10 per gram retail and below $3 per gram wholesale.
They warned that the new 5 nanogram per se DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) statute would mean that possession arrests would just be replaced by DUID arrests. By 2014, not only did possession arrests drop from a few thousand to a few dozen (since over an ounce is still illegal), but overall DUI arrests dropped 18 percent. Washington State Patrol does show that in 2014 there were 6,270 DUIs sent to the lab, with 28 percent coming back hot for THC, or 1,756 THC-positives. But of those, only 44 percent were above 5 nanograms, or 773 per se DUID convictions, which means that 983 THC-positives were under the limit and not a DUID.
Compare that to pre-legalization in 2012. There were 5,298 DUIs sent to the lab with 18.6 percent coming back hot for THC, or 985 THC-positives. Every one of those 985 defendants were subject to a DUID charge, since there was no “under the limit” number back then. The per se DUID statute is still unscientific and arbitrary, but it hasn’t led to dramatically more tokers getting DUID convictions.
The scariest prediction from No on I-502 was that passing I-502 would mean the end of medical marijuana. Indeed, medical marijuana has undergone drastic changes in Washington State. But blaming the demise of Washington medical marijuana on I-502 is like invading Iraq over 9/11 – it’s targeting the wrong enemy.
Washington’s Legislature Had Enough of the Shenanigans
The No on I-502 people are now the ones loudly ringing the bell in California to rally opposition to Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act that would legalize marijuana in the Golden State. “We told everybody I-502 would destroy medical marijuana and it did,” goes the cry, “don’t make the same mistake we made by passing Prop 64!”
But holding up Washington State as an example of what could happen if you pass legalization is like holding up Charlie Sheen as an example of what could happen if you tried acting.
Washington State has had one of the most dysfunctional medical marijuana programs in America since the beginning. It originally had no possession or cultivation limits, instead just a limit of a “60-day supply”. Every grower, patient, and sheriff decided what exactly that was, leading to huge farms and lots of out-of-state diversion of cannabis. Eventually they held hearings to decide what a “60-day supply” would be, with advocates initially calling for 4.5 pounds of cannabis, that got whittled down by the legislature to 1.5 pounds and fifteen plants.
Washington also had no medical marijuana patient registry. Your qualification for medical marijuana there had no state oversight, it was merely your doctor’s signature on a piece of paper. Soon the power to recommend medical marijuana was extended to naturopaths and nurse practitioners. This, of course, led to younger and healthier people getting their medical marijuana recs, culminating in a news exposé of a tent at the Seattle Hempfest where young men were lined up to pay $40 for their medical marijuana letter before they gathered to smoke pot at the Main Stage for the Kottonmouth Kings concert.
Most problematic is that there were no provisions for dispensaries, but there was an allowance for someone to be “a caregiver for one patient at a time,” intended to allow someone to care for a sick friend or relative. But that soon evolved into storefronts supplied by those huge “60-day supply” farms, staffed by clerks tending glass cabinets stocked with copious amounts of cannabis, who were playing “caregivers” to the customers lined up to be “one patient at a time”. Seriously – the clerk would have the next patient in line sign a form saying the clerk was their caregiver, sell the patient some buds, then sign off that the clerk was no longer their caregiver, so the next patient in line could be.
Washington’s legislature tried to rein in their medical marijuana system in 2011 with a comprehensive set of regulations. But then-Gov. Christine Gregoire line-item vetoed most of the commercial regulations, fearing the threats of the federal government. Undeterred, most of the medical marijuana providers continued their lined-up-patients at a caregiver’s dispensary system that wouldn’t have been legal even if the law had passed.
So as I-502 passed, it put a well-regulated, inspected, taxed system of recreational cannabis alongside an unregulated, uninspected, untaxed system of medical marijuana. This led to the legislature crafting Senate Bill 5052, which has ended the practice of unlicensed storefront dispensaries, created a voluntary patient registry, and reduced possession limits to just 6 plants and 3 ounces.
California’s Dealt with the Shenanigans
For the California voter, the tale of Washington State may be frightening. Just like Washington, California has seen its share of unregulated medical marijuana shenanigans. But unlike Washington, California’s legislature has dealt with the regulatory problems before moving on to legalization, through the recent passage of laws that finally provide statewide medical marijuana consistency.
The No on I-502 people misdirect their anger at the passage of legalization when it was the loosely-regulated medical marijuana system itself that brought on the attention of the legislature. There are two examples that make this abundantly clear.
The negative example is Montana. There they had a loosely regulated medical marijuana system, too, that led to the expansion of unauthorized storefront dispensaries, easily obtained medical recommendations by healthy people, and painfully obvious out-of-state diversion.
So in 2011, their legislature called for a complete repeal of medical marijuana, only to be saved by the governor’s veto. In the wake of the veto, they passed a bill, SB 423, far more detrimental than Washington’s SB 5052. Montana’s bill explicitly ended the dispensaries by allowing caregivers only three patients max. They ended the loose recommendations by auditing any doctor who made more than 25 of them per year. After a failed veto referendum in 2012 and numerous court battles, those restrictions are set to go into effect after August 31.
It wasn’t legalizing recreational marijuana in Montana that imperiled medical marijuana there. It was a legislature fed up with commercial medical marijuana operators flouting the law. The same fate awaited Washington’s medical marijuana, as their legislature was already concocting the policies that would eventually become SB 5052.
The positive example is Oregon. There they had a well-regulated medical marijuana system with a mandatory patient registry. Possession and plant counts were clearly defined, starting at one ounce and three mature plants. Only doctors could write recommendations and the state required review of a patients’ medical records to determine a legitimate claim for medical use.
Oregon’s operators, for the most part, complied with the medical marijuana regulations. Where difficulties arose, such as the possession limits being too low, activists educated lawmakers to understand the needs of patients and legislators then passed larger allowances of 1.5 pounds and two dozen plants. When some actors took advantage of greater limits and started forming unauthorized dispensaries based on the caregiver loophole, the best operators invited lawmakers in for tours to see how a well-regulated set of safe medical marijuana access points could function. Through more negotiation with activists, the legislature passed a dispensary law in 2013.
They did legalize marijuana in Oregon, but observers agree that the state has done a far better job integrating medical marijuana into the new system than neighboring Washington. The legislature did make some bad decisions, like allowing the eastern half of the state to opt out of both medical and recreational businesses without a public vote. They tackled some of the worst abuses of medical growers by setting caps on total plants per property, but even then kept those caps at four-dozen plants in non-residential areas and a dozen in residential areas.
So we have Washington State medical marijuana, which had much in common with both Montana and Oregon, suffering a fate more like non-legalized Montana than legalized Oregon. The lesson for California isn’t in Washington, where medical marijuana continued as an unregulated mess as legalization overtook it. The lesson for California is that it did the right thing, like Oregon did, in getting its medical marijuana system in order before moving on to passing marijuana legalization.
Check back tomorrow for Part III – The Southwest & Northeast.