From 'no' to 'yes,' how Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana
A day many thought they would never see has come and gone. In November, after years of, 'Just say no,' Colorado and Washington state both voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for adults over 21.
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That began to change as some doctors extolled marijuana's ability to relieve pain, quell nausea and improve the appetites of cancer and AIDS patients. The conversation shifted in the 1990s toward medical marijuana laws. But even in some states with those laws, including Washington, truly sick people continued to be arrested.Skip to next paragraph
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Improved data collection that began with the ramping up of the drug war in the 1980s also helped change the debate. Late last decade, with Mexico's crackdown on cartels prompting horrific bloodshed there and headlines here, activists could point to a stunning fact: In 1991, marijuana arrests made up less than one-third of all drug arrests in the U.S. Now, they make up half — about 90 percent for possession of small amounts — yet pot remains easily available.
"What we figured out is that your average person doesn't necessarily like marijuana, but there's sort of this untapped desire by voters to end the drug war," says Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer who helped write Colorado's Amendment 64. "If we can focus attention on the fact we can bring in revenue, redirect law enforcement resources and raise awareness instead of focusing on pot, that's a message that works."
With a potentially winning message, the activists needed something else: messengers.
Steves, who lives in the north Seattle suburb of Edmonds, was a natural choice — the "believable, likeable nerd," as he calls himself. Known for his public television and radio shows, as well as his "Europe through the Back Door" guide books, he openly advocated in 2003 for a measure that made marijuana the lowest priority for Seattle police.
He already knew Holcomb, who had been the drug policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. The ACLU chapter recognized that voter education would be crucial to any future reform, especially after polling revealed that many voters didn't even know Washington had a medical marijuana law.
Holcomb helped recruit Steves to star in a 2008 infomercial designed to get people talking about marijuana law reform. The video was aired on late-night television and at forums held across the state, during which experts in drug policy answered questions from audiences.
In November 2009, John McKay, the former Seattle U.S. attorney, agreed to appear on one of those panels. McKay was well respected, from a prominent Republican family and had served as the Justice Department's top prosecutor in western Washington — charged with carrying out U.S. drug laws.
He called for a top-to-bottom review of the nation's drug war and endorsed regulating marijuana like alcohol.
Suddenly, the legalization movement had traction.
Over the next year, a voter initiative drive and legislative efforts gained steam but ultimately failed. California's Proposition 19 legalization measure also failed in 2010. But even with little money and no significant editorial endorsements, in an off-presidential election year with lower youth turnout, Prop 19 received more than 46 percent of the vote.