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Originally published July 10, 2014 at 4:25 PM | Page modified July 11, 2014 at 10:32 AM

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Remember the reason for legal pot

Lost in the hoopla over the opening of state marijuana stores is the reason voters allowed them, Jonathan Martin writes.


Times editorial columnist

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At the opening of Seattle’s first legal marijuana store, Alison Holcomb, the architect of Initiative 502, hoisted a few grams of marijuana encased in a thick wood-and-glass frame, as a memento for her work.

That bud’s for her. Apparently we’re so awash in marijuana that now we can afford to preserve some for posterity.

The better memento would’ve been less dramatic. The frame should’ve held the tens of thousands of criminal possession charges that have not been filed — and won’t be — thanks to I-502.

Lost in the marijuana party hoopla this week is the reason voters allowed the stores to open at all.

Between 2000 and 2010 alone, more than 129,000 Washingtonians were arrested for simple possession of the stuff we now stash in an award frame. That enforcement cost an estimated $211 million, and its targets were disproportionately of darker skin.

Remember that history, even amid the hubbub of store openings. The era of legal marijuana is going to bring a backlash, and real anxiety about this experiment’s ripple effects on teens. As the parent of a 12-year-old boy, I share it.

But the country is at a fork in the road over marijuana: keep prohibition and its corrosive consequences, or legalize pot and regulate the heck out of it.

There is no return to prohibition. Politically, the die is cast for incremental, state-by-state legalization nationwide.

And for good reason. As recently as 2009, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office routinely prosecuted marijuana possession as a stand-alone offense. In one six-month period, 44 percent of the defendants were black — mostly men, mostly young — in a city with a black population of 8 percent, according to city records.

The picture gets worse the farther out you zoom. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that up to $14 billion a year could be saved nationwide by swapping prohibition for regulation. Half of the inmates in federal prisons — more than 100,000 — are there for drug offenses. The per-capita rate of incarceration for young black men exceeds that of Apartheid-era South Africa.

Marijuana legalization, here or nationwide, won’t entirely reverse those corrosive facts. But it’s a start. And Washington has the data to prove it.

After Initiative 502 passed, the number of cases involving simple drug possession, almost all of which is marijuana, fell off a cliff — from 5,531 in 2012 to just 120 in 2013, according to an analysis of state court data by the ACLU of Washington. (Those 120 cases likely involve defendants under 21; possession remains illegal for them.)

The good news, thus far, is that safety hasn’t been jeopardized, as opponents of Initiative 502 suggested. According to the Washington State Patrol, the number of marijuana drugged-driving cases rose from 988 before Initiative 502 to 1,362 last year, even as troopers are increasingly attuned to look for signs of stoned drivers.

“Yes it’s a slight uptick. But the sky is not falling,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.

Instead, Initiative 502 appears to have done what it said it would, in the most important way: The state is no longer wasting law enforcement time on marijuana use.

The other goals — starving a black market that preys on teens and churning out mounds of green cash to fund state health care — are a work in progress, because of a sputtering launch of the state-licensed stores.

But on a micro scale, there are encouraging signs. First-day sales at just three stores generated an estimated $62,000 in state tax revenue. A customer at Seattle’s first marijuana store joked Tuesday that her “dealer” texted after seeing her on TV. “Now I know why you’re not calling me,” the dealer wrote.

The opening of the stores — and the glitchy launch — is getting the headlines now. Liquor Control Board member Chris Marr is rightly focused on working out the kinks, but when I asked him about the history, he recalled the peaceful scene at the opening of a marijuana store in Spokane.

“You contrast it with the injustices of the past, it’s hard to reconcile,“ said Marr. “What was that fight for?”

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com



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