Sep 25 2012

The real pot initiative question

Published by at 8:00 pm under Northwest

westcascades

Really striking how the two major newspapers in the Northwest, the Seattle Times and the Portland Oregonian, have landed on flatly opposite sides on the marijuana legalization initiatives in their respective states – the Times in favor (with four editorials, no less), the Oregonian against.

The Oregonian editorial staff would be quick to note (and accurately) that the two measures are not the same. Washington’s could be considered cleaner, a more direct and conventional legalize, regulate and tax approach, while Oregon’s goes further – almost wrapping pot in the flag and founding fathers (it is true that George Washington and others of the time grew hemp), and putting regulation in the hands of a board dominated by the newly legal industry.

Talk about having the economic advantages baked in.

What the Times writers seemed to get, though, that the Oregonian’s did, is this: The details aren’t what’s important. These initiatives aren’t important in the usual way, the way initiatives on taxes and so many other things are important. In those cases, details are important because those measures if passed will go into effect as is.

Not so in the case of these initiatives. Growing, selling and possessing marijuana is illegal under federal law, and that won’t change even if both initiatives (and those in other states) pass. Voters in a state can’t overturn federal law by initiative, or any other way.

The initiatives are important, rather, as indicators of popular decision-making. If they crash and burn, elected officials who by rote have been for decades imposing fierce penalties on marijuana-related activities will get the message that their approach is acceptable to the voters. A defeat for the initiatives would be a vote for the status quo – which, if you like it, would be the way to go. If you think pot law ought to be shake up, maybe moved toward a legalize/regulate/tax regime, then a yes vote will tend to move things in that direction.

Imagine the reaction in Congress and in the new presidential administration if on one hand all the marijuana initiatives failed? Or if they passed? There would be some rattling effect either way. If they pass, there’s a good chance similar measures would pass in more states in another couple of years, and possibly more a couple of years after that. Changes in the federal law, a brick wall at present, would start to crack severely after that.

That’s what this is about. These initiatives are a form of message-sending more than they’re anything else. If Oregon actually tried, for example, to implement its new initiative, with a free open market in marijuana, the feds would be unlikely to stand by. The details of the initiative – the industry-dominated regulatory board and much of the rest of it – would either never see the light of day, or never see daylight more than once.

The Times seems clearer about that than the Oregonian, which in its editorials seems to have been dancing around the core question of whether legalization is the way to go. It’s a fair policy question. It’s also the one that makes more sense to address than the phantoms which are never likely to become real.

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