Currently Reading: Eye on Olympia

Award-winning journalist Philip Dawdy is lurking in the bushes in Olympia. Nothing gets by him. Every issue he will have an “Eye on Olympia” and the results of which can be found here.

I-502, the marijuana legalization initiative set for this November’s ballot, has provisions that have stirred much controversy and backlash in the medical cannabis community. In particular, many medical cannabis patients are angry about its THC DUI provision. In early March, both Seattle Weekly and The Stranger devoted lengthy cover stories to 502’s DUI provision and all the drama that’s been stirred up around it.

But one provision of 502 has not received nearly as much attention. You see the initiative legalizes one ounce of cannabis to be possessed by anyone 21 years and older. People under the age of 21 are out of luck. While many 502 proponents like to wave the flag that 502’s legalization scheme ends cannabis prohibition and will put an end to about 10,000 arrests a year in Washington State for cannabis use and possession, that’s not entirely accurate.

According to statistics from the Department of Justice, in 2007 about 17 percent of all arrests for cannabis use and possession in Washington were for persons aged 18 to 20 years old. Some 1,700 of these people would still face arrest even though they are clearly adults. That’s not exactly ending prohibition, at least not for all adults.

So why set legalization as a 21-and-older only thing?

“People were most comfortable supporting legalization if the regulatory model looked as much like alcohol as possible and especially hard alcohol,” says Alison Holcomb, 502’s campaign manager and a co-author of the initiative, explaining what her group found when it did focus groups and polling while they were crafting 502 last Spring.

Holcomb adds, “So that’s why we went with the 21 year-old cut off. We were hearing from people we interviewed, ‘aren’t there some 18 year-olds in high school?”

Whether you buy that as an explanation is up to you. But when Douglas Hiatt and I put together I-1068 in 2010 — the first legalization initiative in Washington State in almost two decades—we wrestled with the 18 versus 21 cutoff only briefly. We both strongly felt that 18 was the measure of adulthood and its privileges for almost everything in America, so why not for cannabis? We went with 18 as the age of legalization. The 502 people simply made a different choice. They got their measure on the ballot and 1068 didn’t.

Holcomb argues that arrests of under-21 year-olds wouldn’t necessarily continue at their current pace.

“Whether or not it would continue is an interesting question,” she says and likens the situation to how law enforcement currently handles underage drinking — often by not arresting teens — and she says she believes a similar dynamic would emerge under 502. “Some of what people forget is that 502 is not the endgame. It’s an attempt to move us in a new direction and create a shift in what we think about marijuana use and if arrests are an appropriate punishment. There will be some cultural changes, so arrests will decrease.”

But there’s another aspect of the 21-year-old cutoff that worries critics of I-502 and that’s its zero tolerance policy for any amount of THC in the system of anyone driving a car under the age of 21. There are at least several thousand medical cannabis patients under the age of 21 in Washington State and under 502, they could be charged with a DUI and convicted based solely upon even the tiniest trace of THC in their bloodstream. The 5-nanogram limit only applies to people 21 and older.

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