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Originally published Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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Your vote on legalizing pot, gay marriage could make history

The pot and gay-marriage measures on the state ballot have a lot going for them but may not be able to overcome the fear of change.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The other day, at a news conference urging local voters not to legalize pot and thereby overturn 75 years of precedent, a former national drug czar got that "are you people crazy?" tone to his voice.

"What's the country going to look like if there are a hundred-million marijuana users?" he demanded. "This isn't a joke, this isn't hard to see. It's a clear and present danger."

Now, setting aside the fear-mongering in this argument — you left-coasters vote for this and the whole nation will get stoned! — it did make me realize, in that moment, that there are some once-in-a-lifetime kind of changes on our ballot this year.

Initiative 502 doesn't just downgrade marijuana's status in the criminal code. It goes far beyond that to create state-licensed pot farms and retail outlets. We'd be taking a substance that's been illegal for the better part of a century and turning it into a commercial product, from seed to store.

You have to go back to the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s to find a change so big.

Then there's gay marriage. Kind of like the drug czar, opponents of gay marriage contend that this vote to change the rules on who can get married would be both apocalyptic and ahistoric — upending thousands of years of human history. That's a stretch, to say the least. But not since the end of laws barring interracial marriage — more than a century ago in this state, about 50 years ago in the South — have we considered such a change.

That we're talking about and voting on such once-in-generations stuff like this makes me happy to be here. It seems like a sign of a strong society, one that's sure enough of itself to experiment. Are you people crazy? Yes, and proudly so.

But that doesn't mean we're going to go for it.

Is this a change election? The kind where we're willing, in a burst, to clear out laws — and maybe some politicians and ways of thinking — that have been gathering dust in the attic for decades?

I've had a gut feeling from the beginning that the pot initiative probably will fail, despite its lead in the polls. Not because people feel we're winning the war on drugs. Or that police should be cracking down on pot smokers. But setting up official pot farms and commercial stores, under state licensing, seems like a huge leap beyond just acknowledging the drug war is a failure.

I'm leaning toward voting for Initiative 502. But when faced with something that new, even radical, I can't recall voters ever taking the plunge. Not on the first try anyway.

Gay marriage seems less of a lift. We've been talking about gay equality, as well as voting on it, for decades now. The campaign this fall has been notable for its lack of drama. Not only is expanding marriage the way to bring this debate to an end, doing so will have exactly zero effect on the vast majority of voters.

Still, gay marriage has been rejected in all 32 states that have voted on it, including in supposedly experimental places such as California. The campaign against Referendum 74 doesn't have any arguments left except "it's tradition." Still that might be enough.

People always say they want change. But rarely do they go for the real thing. Sure there are flirtations with change movements, like the tea party or Occupy. But the institutions we've set up, like Congress and the Legislature, seem to have their own inertia no matter what change is in the air.

This time, though, in this state, there are two once-in-a-hundred-years shifts up for your consideration. Real change.

Ballots are being mailed out starting today.

Go crazy, people.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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