SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | Tokin' support

Slowly but surely, over a period of years, the notion that gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities need and deserve civil-rights protections and equality under the law has gone from the pet concern of a few fringe malcontents to a mainstream viewpoint, with attendant radical changes in laws and court decisions across the country. No single edict has ever been handed down.

Instead, shifting cultural mores have led to the organic shift, combined with the gradual supplanting of a generation that thought homosexuality icky and repulsive by younger folks who just didn’t see what the big deal was.

Now, mostly under the radar of mainstream media (which still can’t seem to cover the issue without hippie jokes), a similar shift is happening with the mainstreaming of marijuana.

Pot is no longer the sole province of stoners: It was used last year by nearly 20 percent of Americans, from teenage potheads to grandparents to respected, middle-aged professionals.

And this year, the shift in pot attitudes — from demon drug to just another way to unwind — is reaching both the state Legislature and, in all likelihood, the November ballot.

Too many gray areas

In 1998, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 692, the Medical Use of Marijuana Act, becoming one of the first of a number of mostly Western states to legalize pot use for people with medical conditions where it would help: cancer patients, for example, and a number of other conditions where marijuana turns out to provide good relief for pain, nausea and anxiety.

At the time, even though I-692 had strong voter support, there were a lot of questions: whether people would try to exploit the law for recreational use (well, duh...), and how the law would conflict with both the federal anti-drug apparatus and War On Drugs warriors’ law enforcement.

I-692, in the gay-rights analogy, was the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) of its time — acknowledging that the proscribed behavior was ubiquitous and not really harmful (in fact, for some patients, it was quite beneficial), but if you were too open or didn’t follow the rules for avoiding the rules, you could still get in a lot of trouble.

And, like DADT, I-692 had enormous gray areas. How are medical patients supposed to get their medication? What if they can’t grow it themselves — is buying and selling still illegal? (In many cases, yes.)

Additionally, there have been enormous discrepancies in how law-enforcement agencies treat medical-marijuana patients. King County usually ignores them; other agencies, up to and including state Attorney General Rob McKenna’s office, have been much more aggressive.

The time for reform is ripe. In terms of attitudes toward pot, it’s not 1998 any longer.

A ‘safe distribution system’
Enter Senate Bill 5073, with a companion House measure, that would radically reform the state’s medical-marijuana system.

“The voters’ will is not being honored; there’s differential enforcement across the state,” said Philip Dawdy, media and policy director of the Washington Cannibis Association, a state medical-marijuana trade group.

Among other things, SB 5073 sets up a registry that law enforcement can check to ensure they’re not busting authorized patients; licenses growers and dispensaries so that there’s a safe and legal distribution system; and clarifies the currently muddy status of “designated growers.”

“There’s never been a rational system for people to have access to safe medicine,” Dawdy noted. “This is what this bill will do.”

The bill has already gone through committee and arrives this week at the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with a good chance of passage.

Another notable bill this year, House Bill 1550, would legalize marijuana entirely. It’s unlikely to pass but has noticably more support than similar bills in past years. It may be moot, soon, anyway: Last week, the Secretary of State assigned a number to Initiative 1135, which hopes to put legalization before voters in November.

The initiative’s sponsor, Sensible Washington, needs to get 241,153 signatures by the end of June to qualify for the ballot. Polls suggest that if the measure were voted on today, it would pass.

“I’ve seen 40 years of damage as to what these pot laws do,” said Seattle attorney Jeff Steinborn, one of I-1135’s authors. “What are the results? Money in the hands of outlaws, law-enforcement abuses of minorities, medicinal properties ignored and a lack of studies on [medical effects].”

Steinborn also noted that a licensed system for pot distribution would actually make it far more difficult for minors to score weed than the black-market status quo.

The blowback
There is pushback, of course. There are still plenty of people who don’t believe that society needs another legalized intoxicant, and there are lots of folks who have a vested interest in continuing the laughably ineffective War on Drugs.

Just last week, Hempfest, the hugely popular, annual, two-day, August, pro-cannibis festival in Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park, sued the City of Seattle to force the city to give them a 2011 permit. It seems like every year, the city makes Hempfest jump through hoops other summer festivals don’t face.

Meanwhile, each year, nearly a million Americans are still arrested for simple marijuana possession.

That status quo simply hasn’t worked. Whether or not you think it’s a good idea, marijuana usage is more prevalent than ever, far easier than ever for minors to obtain and entanglements in the system continue to wreck lives for otherwise law-abiding citizens (some of whom also have serious illnesses).

Pot, the logic goes, isn’t going away, and ultimately, what will turn the legalization tide is the desire of cash-strapped governments to get a piece of a huge, untaxed segment of the economy.

Legalized pot is coming — if not this year, then soon. Get used to it.

is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]