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Originally published Monday, September 10, 2012 at 9:02 PM

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Children's Alliance backs pot measure on ballot

Prominent organizations are taking sides on Initiative 502's potential impact on children.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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"definaltley can tell who the users are." How? Because of their good... MORE
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As Washington weighs its first chance to legalize recreational marijuana, prominent groups are taking sides about the initiative's potential impact on children.

Initiative 502 got an unexpected vote of confidence from the Children's Alliance, a Seattle-based advocacy group with more than 100 social-service agencies as members.

After five months of debate, the Alliance's board voted to endorse I-502 for a specific reason: Children in minority households pay "a terrible price" for racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws, said Jon Gould, the group's deputy director.

"The status quo is not working for children, particularly children of color," he said. "Public policy ought to move us further toward racial equity and justice, and Initiative 502 is one step forward to that."

The endorsement may help the I-502 campaign rebut the contention — leveled Monday by a group of substance-abuse treatment providers — that more young people will use marijuana if Washington voters approve the measure.

In a statement opposing I-502, the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention noted that marijuana was the top reason for youth in Washington to enter treatment, and was linked to decreased educational performance.

A spokesman for the group, Derek Franklin, said the current rates — about 26 percent of Washington high-school students using in the previous 30 days — could double under I-502. "It's really a bad trade-off to experiment with legalizing an addictive substance when we see the problems it will cause," said Franklin.

I-502, the first pot initiative on the statewide ballot since medical marijuana in 1998, would allow up to one-ounce sales of marijuana at state-licensed "pot stores" to people 21 and older. It also would stiffen drugged-driving laws and funnel a lot of money — estimated at $560 million a year — from heavily taxed sales to health care, prevention programs and drug research.

The treatment providers join the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in opposition, for similar reasons. A group representing medical-marijuana patients is also opposed, largely because they see the new DUI laws as too harsh.

On Friday, nine former Drug Enforcement Agency administrators publicly urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to oppose I-502, as well as legalization measures in Colorado and Oregon.

"To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," the retired officials wrote in a letter.

The Children's Alliance joins an unusual group of supporters, including the regional National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the state Labor Council, several former federal law-enforcement officials and Seattle's mayor, city attorney and City Council. I-502 has raised more than $3 million, about $850,000 of that from Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis.

Ethan Nadelmann, a longtime national drug-reform advocate, said "Washington state in 2012 represents the best opportunity I've seen" for statewide legalization.

The Children's Alliance has been active in Olympia lobbying for a children's social-safety net, counting about 14,000 individuals and 105 organizations as members, including Catholic Community Services and the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County. It recently put issues tied to racial equity atop its strategic plan.

Although whites and African Americans use marijuana at similar rates, blacks are three times as likely to be arrested, charged and convicted of marijuana-related crimes, said Gould. About 90 percent of those charges are for possession.

Children "end up paying a terrible price for the disproportionate enforcement" when their parents' criminal records hinder their ability to get jobs, public housing or federal student aid, such as Pell grants, he said.

Children's Alliance board member Don Scaramastra acknowledged that the endorsement may be controversial. But the board, by a 6-0 vote, with one member abstaining, felt compelled to "take a stand."

"It's the right thing to do under our strategic plan, under the values we're espousing," said the Seattle lawyer. "We'll let the consequences fall out as they fall out."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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