Inside the Internecine Battle Over Washington State's Marijuana Ballot Measure

Marijuana legalization advocates are fighting a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana.


BELLINGHAM , Wash. — The usual opponents to drug policy reform are nowhere to be found in the fight over I-502, Washington's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Social conservatives are focusing their energies on a gay marriage ballot initiative and law enforcement types are either quietly opposing the initiative or supporting it. To the surprise of many, the loudest opponents of a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana are people who want to…legalize marijuana.

Wearing a "Vote No on I-502" jacket featuring marijuana leaves, Steve Sarich describes his efforts to stop the passage of I-502 as a David vs Goliath battle. He's David. His Goliath is Alison Holcomb, ACLU attorney, mother of one, and the face of the legalization movement in Washington. 

Sarich views Holcomb and her group, New Approach Washington, as prohibitionists posing as professional drug reform advocates. Holcomb, meanwhile, says that Sarich's opposition to I-502 is about protecting his medical marijuana business from competition. Describing their encounters at forums as hostile would be an understatement.

"Every bad medical marijuana law written in the last five years was written by her," Sarich says.

Sarich shows me a graph that suggests Holcomb's law will impact medical marijuana patients who drive. The graph shows THC levels in the bloodstream as it relates to driving ability and how long it remains in your system. Sarich and his supporters claim that the proposed law's controversial DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) provision will make it impossible for medical marijuana users to live anything resembling a normal life, because the legal limit for intoxication is so low. Drivers caught operating a vehicle with over the 5 ng/ml per se limit of THC in their system will be considered under the influence.  Sarich contends that medical research shows that THC stays in your system for up to 30 days after being consumed.

New Approach Washington argues that the new provisions will act in the same way DUI laws do. They say there is a correlation between certain levels of marijuana usage and impaired driving and this new law establishes a way to deal with that. Some states with medical marijuana laws have zero tolerance for THC in the system while others accept certain amounts.

Sarich and other opponents argue that the limits will unfairly impact medical marijuana patients because of the time it resides in the human system. Further, they say, the collection of blood samples for drug testing from drivers is flawed because of its impracticality. The difficulty in defending a DUI charge is of great concern to Sarich and his allies, too.  

Sarich also contends that the law isn't even "real" legalization because it leaves marijuana in the Washington list of Schedule I drugs, a category reserved for substances that are highly addictive and have no medical value.

"If you want to do legalization, here's how you must do it: first you have to make it legal in the state of Washington. The AG has to go sue the Department of Justice to take it out of Schedule I. If you leave every single law in place that makes it illegal, how is it legalization?" Sarich said as he spread more charts and papers out on the large trash can we were leaning on.

Anthony Martinelli, the communications director for anti-I-502 group Sensible Washington, opposes the initiative on the same grounds as Sarich. "We feel that the initiative is a faulty piece of law and it's not legalization. It actually keeps cannabis a Schedule I substance state law next to heroin which can be amended," Martinelli said during an interview with Reason.

The ballot initiative as written does not include legislation for de-listing marijuana as a Schedule I substance in Washington. According to a Washington State Senate breakdown of the law the task of regulating the marijuana industry in the state will fall to the Liquor Control Board. (Proponents have also noted that the real scheduling problem is in Washington, D.C.)

Sarich denies that his opposition stems from his business selling medical marijuana. "That's just totally fucking bullshit. [Holcomb's] been running around going 'Look, it doesn't change the medical marijuana law at all.' So if it doesn't change the medical marijuana law at all, and I am only involved in medical marijuana, I guess it shouldn't affect my business at all, should it?" said Sarich. More perplexing still to Herich is support hte initiative has received from organizations like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Holcomb, a veteran of drug policy reform, says she's seen this all before. In forums she's called Sarich a "marijuana entrepreneur," while some I-502 campaign staffers have called him a "medical marijuana monopolist." 

"It doesn't seem that odd to me because this is the same thing we saw it California's Proposition 19. The Emerald Triangle [Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties, where the bulk of California's medicinal pot is grown] were some of the most vocal opponents to legalization of marijuana. It's sad to me because basically it's people putting their personal self-interest over the interest of people being arrested for using marijuana. It's basically putting their customers at risk," Holcomb said in an interview with Reason after the forum.

To her critics, she describes her efforts in Washington as "incrementalism not idealism."

"It's the same argument that happens in the marriage equality debates. You have people that say, 'you know what if we can get domestic partnerships this year let's get domestic partnerships this year and let's wait for full marriage equality later.' And then you have people that say, 'No, damnit, we don't want to wait any longer,'" she said.

But the concerns transcend financial ones. Opponents of I-502 take issue with the licensing portions of the law as well, particularly the fingerprinting requirement for retailers and growers.

"It forces somebody, if they're applying to be a grower or seller, to submit their fingerprints to the FBI. This has never been done before," says Martinelli. "Obviously if somebody is growing medical cannabis they know that that's illegal federally but no medical cannabis institution has been forced by the state or a city to forward their fingerprints to the FBI claiming that they are growing an illegal substance."

The law, if passed, tasks the Liquor Control Board with running thorough background checks on all license applicants in the same way they do with liquor licenses. Part of this includes a checks with the state police and the FBI.

Sensible Washington has pushed legalization and other marijuana reform efforts around the state and are currently working on a 2013 ballot question that would go much further than I-502. Their planned ballot question would remove marijuana from the state's list of controlled substances and set the age for marijuana possession at 21. For now, though, they are concerned about I-502's possible impact on medical marijuana patients.

"The DUID policy is one of the main reasons we're against it because we feel it will lead to the prosecution of thousands of individuals and that you're switching from one form of prohibition for the other," Martinelli says. "This will fall more squarely on unsuspecting people, mostly patients who will never be below 5 ng/ml."

On the NORML and MPP backing of the initiative Sensible Washington's finance director, Cydney Moore, 23, notes that their endorsements of I-502 came with caveats. "They feel that the larger picture of sending the message of legalization nationally is worth, essentially, throwing Washington state citizens under the bus. We should have to suffer the penalty for what they feel would be a benefit to the greater good," said Moore.

Martinelli and his organization don't view Holcomb's group as prohibitionists, but they say they will work to repeal the DUID provision if I-502 passes on Election Day.

"They have the right idea and the message they're putting across is good, that we should legalize cannabis, but unfortunately they're not being entirely honest when they say their initiative would legalize cannabis," he said.