Panel addresses regulation of medical marijuana in Washington State

The LSJ alumni outreach committee sponsored its first “intellectual event” on May 8, a panel discussion about the facts, controversies and prospects concerning medical marijuana in Washington State.

The panel was moderated by LSJ Director Steve Herbert, and included Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Campaign Director for New Approach Washington Alison Holcomb and Deputy Chief of Staff for the King County Prosecutors Office Ian Goodhew.

The panel discussed the challenges facing the regulation of medical marijuana, and also addressed Initiative 502, which will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. It would allow the purchase and possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults, and would create state-licensed retail stores.

Here is a link to the video of the panel:

Anu Sidhu, a sophomore studying LSJ and economics, said that the event was very informative and relevant.

“I think it is important to be knowledgeable about current issues because they very much affect us, whether directly or indirectly,” Sidhu said. “Since Initiative 502 will be on the upcoming election ballot, I wanted to know as much as possible about what this Initiative would do in the short and long-term.

Martina Kartman, class of 2009 and co-chair of the LSJ alumni outreach committee, said that the event allowed her to learn more about the issue from a variety of perspectives.

“This event enabled us to learn more about the issue of legalizing marijuana from a policy, health, enforcement and social justice perspective, and gave us insight into the discussions that are happening on a local and statewide level around the issue,” Kartman said. “It is a truly unique opportunity to have a group of folks who are major players involved, all in one room together explaining the issue.”

Leslie Berkseth, class of 2011 and the other co-chair of the outreach committee, said that the issue is incredibly relevant to our community because of Initiative 502 and the impact it would have on society.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the marijuana panel. The legalization of marijuana, while of interest to me from a socio-legal standpoint, was never something in which I felt I had a personal stake,” Berkseth said. “However, I found the panel completely fascinating and it really made me consider how the medicalization and possible legalization of marijuana affects me as a citizen of Seattle and the state of Washington.”

Sidhu said that although she knew that there were problems in acquiring marijuana for medical purposes, she had little insight as to how these problems came about.

“It is always easy to look up initiatives or policies such as Initiative 502, which legalizes marijuana in Washington State, but it is hard to fully understand the lurking issues and intuitions behind them,” Sidhu said. “I think that these events really provide me with an all-around understanding of an issue, and one that goes beyond the initiative, policy or bill.”

During the panel, Holcomb explained the historical and political context of marijuana in the U.S. and the racial stigma that has been associated with marijuana usage. She explained that marijuana was a drug for immigrants, or “non-whites” while white Americans preferred alcohol.

“The parallels between marijuana and alcohol prohibitions when it comes to medicine are notable. It’s worth noting that during alcohol prohibition, doctors were prescribing medicinal whisky to provide people a legal defense to continue to use alcohol, and we are seeing the same thing with marijuana,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb explained that the best solution was not to advocate for medical marijuana use but to reframe how we think of marijuana use.

“As long as we continue to advocate for marijuana solely for its medicinal use, we will be stuck there, we will not have dealt with why it doesn’t make sense to deal with recreational marijuana use as a criminal matter rather than as a public health matter as we have chosen to do with alcohol and tobacco,” Holcomb said.

“In describing the stigma that surrounds the use of marijuana, Holcomb explained the cultural context of how marijuana became illegal,” Kartman said. “For me, providing this historical analysis and context to the marijuana debate significantly shapes my views about the issue.”

The panelists all said that it was important to distinguish between medical marijuana use and recreational use.

Berkseth said that while Sen. Kohl-Welles focused primarily on ensuring the availability and legality of marijuana use for medicinal purposes, Holcomb saw the definition of marijuana as a medical substance as possibly harmful to legalization efforts as it completely discounted marijuana’s primary use as a recreational substance.

“Prior to the panel, I have never really thought about the possibility that efforts to legitimize marijuana for medical use could prove harmful to the acceptance of marijuana as a recreational drug like tobacco or alcohol,” Berkseth said. “I also never considered the ways in which the vagueness of Washington’s medical marijuana laws has created myriad problems for the prosecutors and police officers who are attempting to interpret and enforce these laws.”

Burgess talked about the regulatory problems regarding medical marijuana and the need for clarity in the new initiative.

“The ambiguity that is present there creates problems in the city. We have seen a proliferation of dispensaries and storefronts that sell so-called medical marijuana and there’s issues on whether the city can license and regulate those or use our land use code to allow those in some areas in some areas of the city and not others,” Burgess said.

Goodhew and Burgess also spoke about the conflict between Washington law and the federal law, which considers marijuana use to be illegal.

“What we had once was a completely illegal substance that when law enforcement came upon, they knew immediately in their mind that this was either an illegal action to possess it, sell it or manufacture it,” Goodhew said. “When the initiative passed, what changed for law enforcement officers was that they had to investigate the ‘why’ a person was possessing, manufacturing or distributing marijuana.”

He also spoke about the policing problems such as the robberies of medical marijuana dispensaries and the difficulty that the ambiguity in the law has created for law enforcement.

“Because of the quasi-legal nature of possessing marijuana for legal purposes, you see instances where individuals may be robbed, assaulted or violent crimes may occur but they don’t necessarily want to be cooperative with law enforcement,” Goodhew said. “That’s understandable; it’s a concern they have about their own liability.

Kohl-Welles spoke about the flaws in the Washington State Medical use of Marijuana Act of 1998.

“There were a couple things about the initiative that were not perfect and one of the key provisions was that qualifying patients would be able to possess a sufficient amount of marijuana that would not exceed a 60-day supply and we ran into a lot of issues with that,” Kohl-Welles said.

Kohl-Welles said that Initiative 502 on the November ballot addresses many of the previous challenges and has garnered a lot of public support.

“I am determining that there is more support among the cross-section of the Legislature because they know now that their constituents support it,” Kohl-Welles said. “In fact, when Initiative 692 was approved by the voters in 1998, I believe that all but one county had a majority vote.”

Berkseth said that understanding the history of marijuana legislation gave her insight into the new legislation in fall.

“I learned a lot about the holes in previous attempts to legalize marijuana for medicinal use,” Berkseth said. “It was especially helpful to hear the panel members discuss the current initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use and to have the opportunity to ask people like Holcomb and Kohl-Welles, who have actually been part of the policy-making process, questions about the law.”

Sidhu agreed and said that it was good to hear from different sectors of society that would be impacted by the initiative.

“Each panelist had a different viewpoint to bring to the table and I found that to be intriguing,” Sidhu said. “Each panelist had a unique perspective that was valuable to me,[but] Alison Holcomb from New Approach Washington most captured my attention. When she spoke you could tell she deeply cared about the issue.”

Berkseth said that it was important to have panel events because they give citizens an opportunity to connect with politicians and policy makers and discuss important issues, like marijuana legalization.

“Regardless of one’s personal interest in whether or not marijuana could be available as a recreational drug, given the current state of the economy and the amount of taxpayer money and resources that are put into enforcing the criminalization of marijuana, this is clearly an issue that affects everyone,” she said.

Lily Fender, a sophomore studying LSJ with minors in political science and anthropology, said that as a student, it was important for her to stay informed.

“While I do believe there are students at the UW who strive to stay up to date on the current events that impact our city and state policy, it is rare to have a forum for one-on-one interaction with the people who work with these policies and effecting change among them on a daily basis,” Fender said. “Having the opportunity to hear from such a diverse line-up of panelists, UW students were given the chance to become familiar with the faces of an evolving public policy that has the potential to deeply impact their city and state culture.”

This article was composed by Charlotte Anthony.