Washington Initiative's Backers Seem Determined to Make Marijuana Legalization Boring


Behold the blandest set of law enforcement officials since Jack Webb teamed up with Harry Morgan:

That's the latest ad for Initiative 502, which would authorize state-licensed stores to sell marijuana for recreational purposes. The campaign's low-key, dull-as-dishwater approach may be just the ticket. A SurveyUSA poll in early September put support for I-502 at 57 percent, with 34 percent opposed and only 9 percent undecided. In a poll completed on September 30 by the same organization, the level of support was unchanged, making marijuana legalization more popular in Washington than President Obama.

Colorado's marijuana legalization initiative, meanwhile, still has a 10-point lead, with support at 50 percent and 10 percent undecided. Amendment 64's backers also are highlighting support from current and former law enforcement officials. Former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo endorsed the initiative last month, saying:

I am endorsing Amendment 64 not despite my conservative beliefs, but because of them.

Throughout my career in public policy and in public office, I have fought to reform or eliminate wasteful and ineffective government programs. There is no government program or policy I can think of that has failed in such a unique way as marijuana prohibition.

Tancredo, who as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 endorsed a federalist approach to medical marijuana, has been moving in this direction for several years. In a recent piece about Amendment 64 for The Atlantic, Molly Ball notes that "in each of his 10 years in Congress, [Tancredo] voted for an unsuccessful amendment that would have denied funding to the Justice Department" for medical marijuana raids. Tancredo's evolution on drug policy seems similar to the conversion of former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican who began to criticize federal interference with state medical marijuana laws in 2006 and eventually renounced his support for the war on drugs convincingly enough to become the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential candidate. (As Ed Krayewski noted last week, Washington's initiative also has attracted support from a prominent Republican: state legislator Michael Baumgartner, who is challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell, an I-502 opponent.)

Ball argues that that the arguments used by Amendment 64's opponents implicitly concede a lot:

It's a sign of how times have changed that the opposition relies not on a front group of concerned parents, as so often in the past, but on largely technical arguments on how the initiative is likely to get tied up in court if it passes. They don't really bother to argue that pot is dangerous; they contend that it's basically legal already, so why tinker with the sanctity of the state's founding document?

After years of referenda, "Coloradans are at this point not inclined to add anything else to the constitution," says Laura Chapin, communications director for No on 64. "Our constitution is cluttered enough already, we've got conflicting directives in it, and Amendment 64, as legislators have pointed out, most likely conflicts with another constitutional amendment, TABOR"—the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, on the books since 1992, which requires voter approval of tax increases. Chapin says that's at odds with Amendment 64's directive that legislators levy an excise tax on marijuana.

Given that pot is already basically legal, Chapin says, voters won't see the need for a ballot initiative that will cause legislative confusion, put the state at odds with federal law and potentially damage the tourism industry by making Colorado the Amsterdam of America. "Anybody who's been to a concert can tell you nobody's actually being arrested for simple pot possession in Colorado," she said. "What does this get us that we don't already have?"

I discussed the prospect of marijuana legalization by ballot initiative in a column last month.