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Originally published October 4, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 1:04 PM

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Little organized opposition to marijuana-legalization initiative

The lack of organized opposition in Washington state is notable against the well-funded I-502 campaign, with its big-name endorsers and recent $700,000 TV advertising buy.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Initiative 502

Highlights of the measure, which would legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana. I-502 does not affect the federal marijuana ban and could be pre-empted by federal law.

Possession: Strips state criminal penalties for small possession (1 ounce dried form, 72 ounces liquid, 1 pound solid form) for people 21 and older.

Sales: By 2013, state to issue licenses for cannabis retailers, growers and food processors; imposes 25 percent excise tax at each level.

Research: Portion of taxes dedicated to marijuana research, prevention programs and state health-care fund.

Medical marijuana: Does not change state medical law.

Homegrown: Does not allow home growing; marijuana may be bought only at state-licensed stores.

DUI: Adds new standard for marijuana impairment, equating 0.5 nanograms of THC to 0.08 blood-alcohol level.

Source: Initiative 502

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As one of the few public faces opposing marijuana legalization this year, Pat Slack has gotten hostile calls at home and work, calling him "Hitler," old and an idiot.

At a debate about Initiative 502 last month, he nearly lost his temper when a heckler interrupted him. "This is one of the reasons it's really hard to get people to come out and talk on this," Slack, head of the Snohomish County drug task force, told the heckler.

Just two weeks before ballots are mailed, it appears Slack will largely go it alone. State police groups and their allies in the drug-treatment community have not created a political committee to raise money or buy advertising.

Opposition is not a low-budget campaign; for law enforcement, it's a no-budget campaign.

Police are not all sitting on the sidelines — a handful participate in debates — but the lack of organized opposition is notable against the well-funded I-502 campaign, with its big-name endorsers and recent $700,000 TV advertising buy.

King County Sheriff Steve Strachan, who announced his support for I-502 this week, thinks he knows why Washington cops are quiet.

"I can tell you, anecdotally, I'm not the only one who feels this way" in law enforcement, Strachan said. "One of the reasons you're not seeing a large, organized opposition is there are a lot of differences of opinion in the law-enforcement community."

His view is not universal: The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs voted last November to oppose I-502, fearing broadening drug use and easier access for youth. But that group, which has restrictions on its political activities, has stayed silent, and the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs (WACOPS), which is not restricted, also has not weighed in.

Nor has the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Washington Education Association, the Association of Washington Business or other business groups.

WACOPS executive director Jamie Daniels said the group would discuss I-502 at its fall membership meeting in Chelan next week. But she said her group, which has 4,000 rank-and-file members, has been more focused on races for governor, attorney general and Legislature.

"They haven't exactly been calling me on this," said Daniels.

The Washington Association for Substance Abuse & Violence Prevention opposes I-502, but its president, Derek Franklin, said energy from grass-roots volunteers was tapped out by last year's fight against liquor privatization.

And fundraising against I-502 is challenging because the initiative's heavy excise tax on marijuana sales — projected to raise $560 million — earmarks funding for the same groups that traditionally would oppose drug legalization, he said.

On the other side, I-502 hit the $4.1 million mark for cash and in-kind donations this week, allowing it to buy a second round of TV ads aimed for late October. Prominent endorsers, including former state and federal law-enforcement officials, helped persuade newspapers in Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver and Olympia to endorse I-502.

Campaign manager Alison Holcomb said she anticipated organized opposition but is pleasantly surprised to find little, which she attributes to I-502's tight regulations, including a continued ban on marijuana possession for people under 21.

"Those of us who contributed to drafting I-502 are pleased to see that our efforts to address public safety and public health concerns have reassured traditional opponents of marijuana law reform," she said.

It hasn't been so elsewhere.

In the 2010 failed campaign to legalize marijuana in California, opponents funded by the California Police Chiefs Association, medical groups and beer distributors spent $338,000 and rallied newspaper editorial boards to oppose the measure..

In Colorado, a legalization measure on the November ballot has drawn an organized opposition campaign supported by the business community, including the Denver Chamber of Commerce, as well as law-enforcement groups, the Democratic governor and the teachers union. Police are particularly motivated by the lack of a driving-while-stoned provision in the measure in Amendment 64, said No on 64 spokeswoman Laura Chapin.

"For the business community, it's a branding issue: 'Welcome to Colorado, the marijuana state,' " said Chapin. Her campaign has raised more than $295,000.

Slack, the Snohomish task-force commander, said fundraising against I-502 is challenging. Unlike last year's record-setting campaign for — and against — liquor privatization, there appear to be few business interests invested in I-502's passage or failure, he said.

"To fight something like this, where would the money come from?" Slack said. "People are looking at this the wrong way: They're looking at getting tax dollars out of this. They're not looking at the damage to our youth."

If there are commercial interests at stake, they are in the medical-marijuana industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most vocal opposition has been No on 502, organized by medical-marijuana entrepreneur Steve Sarich, which has raised $5,700.

His group opposes I-502 largely because — unlike Colorado's measure — it includes a DUI provision that medical-marijuana patients fear would effectively criminalize their driving.

"I'm surprised there's not any opposition from the anti-marijuana community, including folks like Drug Free America," Sarich said.

Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen sits on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation, and opposes I-502. But Owen is focused on a tight re-election race, said his spokesman, Brian Dirks.

Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt, who opposes I-502, disagrees with Strachan that police are divided on legalization and sees I-502 as "just bad policy" that "sets the wrong message for youth." He recently debated former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, a marijuana-legalization advocate.

But Reichardt said he is too consumed with other issues, including the need for a new local jail, to focus on I-502.

"It's not the issue of the day for me," Reichardt said.

University of Washington political-science professor Matt Barreto noted I-502 has led in recent polls. But to hedge against complacency, I-502 backers should "be very wary" of a lack of opposition, and need to air a late-campaign ad blitz, he said.

"When you're trying to change norms, you need a good justification," said Barreto. "Voters are reluctant on most initiatives: Do we want to change the law? When they don't have a lot of information, especially on something like this, they will lean toward no."

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

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