Source:  By Jeff Baker | [email protected] / May 20 2014 / We love the Herb

Roger Roffman sat down at a coffee shop on Southeast Division Street recently and started to explain how the legalization of marijuana in Washington is going. Roffman is a retired professor at the University of Washington and one of the sponsors of Initiative 502, which passed in 2012 with 56 percent of the vote.

Implementation has been slow in Washington compared to Colorado, the other state that legalized weed in 2012. Colorado’s first licensed marijuana stores opened on Jan. 1; Washington’s aren’t expected to open until the middle of July. Dozens of Washington cities and counties (including Clark County and Vancouver) passed temporary bans on selling marijuana, and medical marijuana dispensaries are unsure where or if they fit under the new law.

“Many people in the medical marijuana community would ask why they can’t continue to grow on their own or on collective gardens,” Roffman said. “The other side of the argument is that the way to drive out the illicit market out of business is to close off any routes of access other than the licensed retail outlets, essentially push the illegal and quasi-legal sellers out of business.”

Marijuana possession and distribution remains illegal under federal law. Roffman, the author of “Marijuana Nation: One Man’s Chronicle of Getting High: From Vietnam to Legalization,” noted that the Justice Department allowed Washington and Colorado to go ahead with legalization and issued a memoradum to U.S. attorneys outlining enforcement priorities. There is a political window in which legalization efforts in Oregon and elsewhere are proceeding, but Roffman put forward a plausible scenario for how that window could close.

“Suppose the Republicans win the Senate in November, and the House stays Republican,” he said. “And then suppose a Republican is elected president in 2016. All of a sudden, this political cover (toward legalization) could disappear.”

Public opinion on legalization has shifted rapidly. In 1969, only 12 percent favored legalization in a national Gallup poll, and the number remained in the 30s until five years ago. It reached 50 percent in 2011 and hit 58 percent in 2013, the first time a clear majority favored legalization. Democrats and independents favor legalization by more than 60 percent, compared to 35 percent of Republicans. Older voters (age 65 and over) remain opposed, but support among them has grown rapidly.

“The American public is moving rapidly to a place of tolerance,” Roffman said. Political leaders are not moving as fast in the same direction, perhaps for fear of being labeled soft on drugs. The burgeoning marijuana industry is operating under a cloud of uncertainty (a legal cloud, not a cloud of pot smoke) because the drug remains illegal under federal law.

Roffman began smoking marijuana while serving in the army in Vietnam. He is a former head of the Washington chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws who quit smoking weed in 1978 and began the first federally funded study of marijuana dependence counseling in 1986. He backed I-502 because of its emphasis on health care, education, treatment and research and stressed that he does not believe marijuana is harmless.

“I fully acknowledge the harm it can cause to young people and adults,” he said. “One of the first things out of my mouth when I speak in public is ‘marijuana is not harmless.’ I believe it can be used harmlessly by adults, but I think it should be regulated and it should not be sold to young people.”

A few blocks from where we talked, a medical marijuana dispensary was open for business. Such dispensaries recently were banned for one year in Clackamas and Washington counties. Legalization supporters are gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot and are confident they will succeed.

– Jeff Baker

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