Supporters of Initiative 1068, which would have eliminated penalties
for marijuana possesssion, cultivation and sale, failed to make the
Washington state ballot. Guest columnist Roger Roffman suggests its
time to have a conversation about the marijuana policy reform that
answers concerns of police chiefs, prosecutors, medical societies,
educators and parents.
By Roger A. Roffman
July 8, 2010
It's 0-3 this year for removing criminal penalties for possessing or
selling marijuana for non-medical purposes.
In the last session, the Washington state Legislature killed a bill
to legalize marijuana. Another bill to reclassify possession as a
civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor achieved a "do pass"
recommendation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but then died in
the Rules Committee. Finally, Initiative 1068 which would have
eliminated state penalties for marijuana possession, cultivation, and
sale failed to get enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
You'd think that getting a liberal marijuana law passed in this state
would be a slam dunk. After all, in 2003 Seattle voters approved
Initiative 75 which called for small-scale marijuana possession by
adults to be Seattle's lowest law enforcement priority. More
recently, the City Attorney has stopped prosecuting marijuana
possession cases and Mayor Mike McGinn has called for marijuana legalization.
It's been nearly 40 years since the members of a presidential
commission called for decriminalizing marijuana possession. The
commission members believed that draconian penalties caused more harm
than good by promoting public distrust for government-issued health
information about drugs. They recommended an alternative: discourage
marijuana use, but with a penalty that better fits the offense than a
jail term or a life-long criminal record.
The state Legislature came closest to adopting the federal
commission's recommendation in 1977. House Bill 257 passed in the
House after receiving support from the police chiefs of Seattle and
five other cities. The prosecuting attorneys of four counties
endorsed the bill as did the King County Medical Society. The Seattle
Times and other newspapers across the state called for the bill's
passage. A state-funded poll found that a majority favored either a
small fine or no penalty whatsoever for marijuana possession in small amounts.
HB 257 came close. Perhaps in the following session it might have
succeeded. But, something else was happening across the country that
derailed decriminalization. The head shop industry grew rapidly as
did the publication of pro-pot magazines such as High Times.
Increasing numbers of young people began trying marijuana. The public
In the late 1970s, the goal of protecting civil liberties by
liberalizing marijuana laws was displaced by another goal: protecting
children and adolescents. With the exception of marijuana's use for
medical purposes, the marijuana policy reform movement that had grown
dramatically in the 1970s was dead in the water.
Today, a new generation of policy activists is calling for a
conversation about how we think about marijuana. Just as in 1972 when
decriminalization was first recommended nationally, having this
conversation is a good idea. Each year more than 800,000 people are
charged with marijuana-possession offenses. Young people and people
of color are disproportionately affected.
I believe, however, that we'll only see success in marijuana policy
reform when those in the movement expand the goals they're trying to
achieve. The objective needs to be more than protecting civil
liberties. It must also include the goal of protecting those who are
I suspect that chiefs of police, prosecuting attorneys, medical
societies, educators, and parents will once again join in supporting
change in the marijuana possession laws if those reforms include a
number of goals:
• Protecting adult civil liberties, • Effectively preventing
marijuana's harms to children and adolescents,
• Acknowledging the reality of marijuana dependence and addressing
its prevention and treatment,
• Proposing credible prevention of accidents because of driving while
• Identifying specific health risks from pot use in vulnerable groups
(for example, individuals with cardiovascular disease).
It's time for the conversation to bring all of these goals to the table.
Roger A. Roffman is professor emeritus, School of Social Work,
University of Washington.