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Washington's Marijuana Law Is Part of Reforming the Criminal Justice System

By Mark Cooke , ACLU of Washington & Doug Honig , ACLU of Washington at 4:14pm

Voters in Washington state, along with those in Colorado, made history on Election Day by passing laws that legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and over. Washington’s law, Initiative 502 (I-502), passed with an 11-point margin, sending a clear message that the public is ready for a change in policy.

As of today, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is legal under Washington state law. During a year-long rulemaking process that will end next December, the State Liquor Control Board will create a tightly regulated system that licenses the production, processing, and selling of marijuana. Marijuana will be sold in standalone stores very similar to Washington’s old hard alcohol stores. Private entities licensed by the state will produce, process, and sell marijuana, and it will be taxed at each step along the way.

The ACLU has long opposed the War on Drugs and its criminalization of marijuana. ACLU of Washington support for I-502 is part of our broader work of criminal justice reform. Our state and nation’s unfair marijuana policies have damaged civil liberties in many ways – eroding constitutional protections against searches and seizures, putting large numbers of non-violent individuals behind bars, and disproportionately targeting people of color. Over the last 25 years, there were almost a quarter-million arrests of adults in Washington for marijuana possession. And though African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans combined constituted 14 percent of Washington’s population, from 2001 through 2010 they accounted for 25 percent of marijuana-possession arrests – even though use rates are similar to those of whites.

The initiative came at a time of growing recognition that marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that consumes law enforcement resources much better devoted to dealing with violent crime. I-502 gained broad support from not only social justice organizations and civic leaders, but health care professionals and some law enforcement officials. Endorsers included two former U.S. attorneys, the former head of the Seattle’s FBI office, Seattle’s city attorney, and both candidates for King County Sheriff. Opposition from law enforcement officials in the state was muted, reflecting, in part, that many recognize the futility of current marijuana laws. The Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy group, also backed I-502 because of the impact of marijuana arrests in breaking up families and harming communities of color.

Another factor that won support was the acknowledgment by initiative sponsors that marijuana is not a harmless substance. I-502 was drafted to mirror the success we’ve had in reducing tobacco use over the last two decades. Indeed, the initiative directs that more than half of the tax revenue derived from legalized marijuana go to health care, drug prevention, and public health education. This potential funding is substantial: the state’s Office of Financial Management estimated legalization could yield upwards of $500 million annually to public coffers.

Of course, marijuana use remains a crime under federal law. We hope the federal government will not interfere with the law’s implementation. It takes public safety and public health very seriously, setting up a tightly regulated system for marijuana. Federal officials should respect the will of our state’s voters.

The campaign for I-502 shows how a well thought-out, pragmatic approach to criminal justice reform can lead to change considered unthinkable just a few years ago. Washington looks forward to serving as a laboratory for a better public policy for marijuana use.

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*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult an attorney.