This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Is Tacoma – a city with more cannabis dispensaries than pharmacies – really out to jail seriously ill patients whose doctors have recommended marijuana use?
That’s the contention of the people behind Initiative 1, a measure that would order the city’s police to make marijuana offenses their “lowest enforcement priority.” Their chief argument is that people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS stand to be prosecuted and see their homes confiscated – although not even the hard-nosed U.S. Justice Department has shown the least interest in doing so.
The overwrought claims about the sick being persecuted point to the difficulty of identifying a practical – as opposed to a political – purpose for this initiative. If the city or county ever prosecuted a dying cancer patient or wasting AIDS patient for using medical marijuana, it would be – and should be – a scandal.
In reality, the police don’t waste much time pursuing adults for possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. A minor marijuana charge is commonly a byproduct of a serious bust – as when a crack dealer gets caught with some weed in his pocket.
As far as we can tell, Initiative 1 would pretty much tell the police to do what they’re already doing.
The actual effect of Initiative 1 would be political. If approved, it would let the operators of Tacoma’s many marijuana stores claim that the public wants them to stay in business. The Tacoma City Council would get political cover for the tolerance policy it appears to be leaning toward.
Advocates of marijuana for recreational purposes would claim a ringing endorsement from the voters.
Endorsements of street drugs, including marijuana, tend to be bad ideas. Compared to “hard” drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, pot comes off looking good. It doesn’t cause death by overdose, and relatively few get addicted to it if they begin to use as adults.
But “safer than heroin” is hardly a great recommendation. All psychoactive drugs have downsides. Strains of highly potent marijuana appear to trigger schizophrenia, among other problems. The famously liberal Dutch government, which has tolerated open marijuana use for decades, is now attempting to crack down on the most dangerous varieties.
Initiative 1 doesn’t distinguish one kind of marijuana from another. For that matter, it doesn’t distinguish possession of an ounce from possession of five pounds. It simply tells police not to bother with possession. It might well lead to open smoking of the drug, in parks and on the streets, after police have been told to look the other way.
There’s a decent case to be made for some kind of marijuana decriminalization. Initiative 1 – a faux legalization without much thought for safeguards – is not the way to do it.