Op-ed: Rick Steves on why he is co-sponsoring Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana

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Will Washington Legalize Weed?

MARIJUANA use is a serious, expensive and persistent challenge in our society. And it’s time for a new approach. That’s why I’m co-sponsoring Initiative 502 on the Nov. 6 ballot, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, allowing adults 21 and over to buy up to one ounce from state-licensed stores.

Initiative 502 is not pro-pot. Rather, it’s anti-prohibition. We believe that, like the laws that criminalized alcohol back in the 1930s, our current laws against marijuana use are causing more harm to our society than the drug itself.

Marijuana is a drug. It’s not good for you. It can be addictive. But marijuana is here to stay. No amount of wishing will bring us a utopian drug-free society.

To address this reality, Initiative 502 is a smart law. It has been endorsed by the entire Seattle City Council; the mayors of Seattle, Tacoma and other cities; the NAACP; the Children’s Alliance; and an impressive list of well-respected attorneys, judges, law-enforcement officials and state legislators.

Marijuana is a huge underground business in our state — estimated to be our second-biggest crop, after apples. Untold billions of untaxed dollars are enriching gangs and empowering organized crime. We believe the safest approach is to bring cannabis out of the black market and regulate it. Taxes on the legal sale of marijuana would raise, according to government estimates, $500 million a year for our state.

Opponents worry: Will passing Initiative 502 lead to more people smoking pot? Surveying societies that have decriminalized marijuana, there appears to be no evidence that use goes up with decriminalization. For example, in the Netherlands — famous for its relaxed marijuana laws — per capita cannabis consumption is about on par with the U.S. Use among young Dutch people is actually lower than in the U.S.

Speaking of young people, we would do a better job protecting them if we brought marijuana under tight regulatory control, taxed it and invested more funding in prevention and education, as Initiative 502 proposes to do. That’s how we’ve cut youth tobacco use in half — not by arresting adult cigarette smokers.

Some worry about safety on the roads if marijuana is legalized. But of the 17 states with provisions for medical marijuana, there has been no evidence of an increase in cases of driving under the influence (DUI) involving cannabis. But just to be sure, Initiative 502 comes with very strict and specific DUI provisions.

Many say marijuana itself isn’t so bad, but it’s dangerous as a gateway to harder drugs such as heroin. We believe the only “gateway” thing about marijuana is its illegality. When it’s illegal, you have to buy it from criminals on the street who have a vested interest in getting you hooked on something more addictive and profitable.

In 2011, a decade after Portugal decriminalized all drugs, a study found that marijuana use had not gone up. (In fact, cannabis use among Portuguese young adults is about half the European average). Meanwhile, Portugal’s hard-drug-addicted population has been reduced by half. Most important, drug-related crime is down, saving lots of money and freeing up Portuguese law enforcement to focus on other priorities.

If Initiative 502 passes, won’t the federal government simply override the will of the people of Washington state? No one knows for sure how the feds will react. But our country was designed for states to be the incubators of change. After all, it was individual states that defied the federal government and made possible the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s. Since the 1990s, 17 states have legalized medicinal marijuana in direct opposition to federal law. And, when strict parameters are set and followed, the feds have generally stayed out.

There are so many reasons to end the prohibition on marijuana. Whether you want to improve the well-being of children, redirect money away from criminals and into our state’s coffers or protect civil liberties, it’s clearly time for a new approach. Rather than being “hard on drugs” or “soft on drugs,” we can finally be smart on drugs with Initiative 502. Please vote yes.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is based in Edmonds.9

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