OLYMPIA — Supporters of an effort to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in Washington state plan to turn in signatures this week to qualify their initiative. New Approach Washington expects to turn in more than 355,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office on Thursday, said the group's campaign director, Alison Holcomb.
An initiative to the Legislature requires at least 241,153 valid signatures of registered state voters to be certified, though the secretary of state's office suggests at least 320,000 as a buffer for any duplicate or invalid signatures.
Initiative 502 would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and impose a 25 percent excise tax at each stage. Those 21 and over could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana; one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies; or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids. It would be illegal for a motorist to have more than 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in their system. THC is the active ingredient of cannabis.
"This is an issue whose time has come, both here in Washington and nationwide," Holcomb said.
Once the initiative goes to the Legislature, it has to take action during the upcoming 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 9 or the measure automatically goes to the November ballot. The initiative has several high-profile sponsors, including former Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay and travel guide Rick Steves.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said that she has concerns about the legalization initiative because of the conflict with the federal government, which still says the drug is illegal. "Even if this were to pass, we'd still have to deal with federal law," said spokeswoman Karina Shagren.
Shagren said that Gregoire would prefer to focus on getting clarity when it comes to medical marijuana laws. She noted that the governor's focus is on a recent petition that she and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee filed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration asking the agency to reclassify marijuana so doctors can prescribe it and pharmacists can fill the prescription.
Washington state already has a voter-approved medical marijuana law that gives doctors the right to recommend — but not prescribe — marijuana for people suffering from cancer and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."
Some marijuana legalization supporters are opposed to the current initiative. A group called Patients Against I-502 has expressed concern that medical marijuana users will be subject to arrest because of what they see as an overly strict intoxicated driving limit.
On its website, the group wrote the limit listed in the initiative would "subject patients to highly invasive blood testing, unnecessary confinement and a criminal conviction that will haunt them for life."
"We want to legalize it too, but not at the expense of those who use cannabis to successfully treat terminal and debilitating diseases," the group said on the website.
Another group opposed to I-502, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, cited concerns about increased use among young people, increase cases of drugged driving, and conflict with federal law.
"We just don't think that it's the right thing for state government to tell its citizens to do something that can get them arrested by federal officers," said Don Pierce, the group's executive director.
Holcomb said that she believes that the initiative would withstand a court challenge, and hoped that "the federal government will extend I-502 at least the same respect it has extended to state medical marijuana laws."
Washington isn't the only state considering marijuana legalization. Colorado will vote next year if a similar measure there makes the ballot. Supporters there are expected to turn in signatures in the coming weeks to qualify for the November ballot.