Tedine Roos is a 78-year-old retired librarian. She also is a staunch advocate of legalizing marijuana.
“I guess I’ve realized for a long time that it’s really not that harmful,” she said of the drug, adding that she and other legalization advocates are “just appalled” by the arrests of pot smokers and the money spent to prosecute and incarcerate them.
Roos, a former Longview resident who now lives in Vancouver, was among a small army of activists who gathered enough signatures to put a pot legalization measure on the November ballot.
Initiative 502, which has gained the support of a former U.S. attorney and the former head of the Seattle office of the FBI, would legalize marijuana, which would be sold to those 21 and older in retail outlets similar to liquor stores. The drug would be highly taxed, and the revenues would go to fund health services, addiction treatment and other state programs.
The fact that the measure easily obtained more than the necessary 241,153 signatures to make the ballot — and that it has gained support from the likes of a retired librarian — may signal that voters are ready to reverse decades of marijuana policy in Washington. That wouldn’t be surprising, given marijuana’s history.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, between 95 million and 100 million Americans say they’ve tried pot and 15 million say they’ve used it in the last month. Marijuana is the country’s largest cash crop, the group said. However, the MPP said 41,000 Americans are in state and federal prison on marijuana-related charges. The figure doesn’t include county jails, the group said.
Meanwhile, doctors suggest the drug is not as physically harmful as once believed. And some states, including Washington, are allowing its use as a painkiller and for treatment of diseases and conditions, even though pot is still banned under federal law.
Yet, community leaders are struggling deeply with the question.
A hard topic to discuss
Interviews with a half-dozen people in a wide range of professions show that many are unhappy with current marijuana policies but are reluctant to publicly endorse outright legalization. Others said they don’t want to discuss legalizing pot publicly because the subject is too controversial.
“I don’t want to get on that train,” a local doctor told a reporter last week.
“I kind of have to choose which ditches to die in,” a member of the local clergy said.
Kelso Police Chief Andy Hamilton and Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha didn’t return several calls asking about pot legalization last week. And numerous voters who signed the marijuana legalization petition didn’t respond to requests to discuss the issue with a reporter.
Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, said he believes there’s broad agreement among the public that tax dollars can be better spent on more important priorities than enforcing the marijuana ban. But, Stephan said, people are reluctant to discuss those views publicly because of the stigma.
There is a tendency, he said, to characterize anyone favoring legalization as a squinting, hacking oddball stoner or, worse, someone who is cavalier about the safety of children who are, arguably, already vulnerable to drug use.
“It’s too easy in a sense to flip this from a reasonable conversation about public policy to demonizing someone in a character-ruining way that will undermine their credibility,” Stephan said. “That’s the tension around this one.”
We did, however, find six community leaders willing to discuss the issue. Here’s what they had to say.
“I don’t have strong opinions about marijuana,” said Gus Nolte, the director of the Drug Abuse Prevention Center, which has been providing drug treatment throughout the county since 1971.
“No drug is good, but I don’t know if ... clogging up our penal system with marijuana uses — possession of marijuana — is worth our time and effort,” he said.
The drug “is a problem,” he said. “But I don’t know how much of a problem it is.”
While many treatment programs have historically encouraged patients to avoid all drugs, pot is beginning to play a role in drug treatment, Nolte said. These days, he said, those trying to recover from addictions to hard drugs are getting medical marijuana prescriptions to use pot as a substitute, Nolte said.
“We’re going more and more towards medically assisted treatment,” he said, and marijuana is playing a role in that. “People are using it in their treatment.. .. It’s medically assisted treatment. I know there’s a lot of controversy over that.”
Asked if he believed Cowlitz County’s meth and heroin problems would be made worse if marijuana became legal, Nolte said, “I have no idea. I really don’t.”
But, he said, “What we’re doing now isn’t working, is it? So I don’t know what the right answer is.”
Roos, the Vancouver woman who helped get I-502 on the ballot, said she isn’t especially politically active. She was motivated to collect signatures for the initiative because she believes people are ready to change marijuana policy and harness revenues from the drug for state programs.
“I got a lot of interesting comments when I was collecting signatures. They said, ‘Thank you for doing this. This is long overdue,’ ” she said.
Roos said she was particularly compelled to support medical marijuana laws because her grown son, who lives in Oregon, where medical use of marijuana also is legal, has multiple sclerosis. Marijuana “quiets the tremors” and helps him eat, she said.
Roos said selling pot in stores rather than on the street would make it more difficult for teenagers to buy.
“It doesn’t mean that kids won’t be able to get it any more than they can get alcohol,” she said. But “I think that smart parents want it regulated. It’s better having it in stores than kids being able to buy it down the alley.”
Users would still have to show good judgment, she said.
“You shouldn’t be doing certain kinds of jobs if you’re taking prescription medication too. If they want to use it in a situation that they shouldn’t, they will. And the fact that it’s illegal doesn’t really stop them.”
Roos said she hasn’t smoked pot for “quite some time,” but would consider using it occasionally if it were legal.
“I think probably people in my age group who enjoyed it in the 70s probably would smoke some possibly. But I don’t know that the whole population is going to take up pot. I kind of doubt it.”
Even though the drug is illegal, “the people who want to find it can,” she said. “It’s just that the price is very high, the quality is uncertain, and we’re paying organized crime. And we should be getting that revenue for the state as we do for alcohol.”
For Nick Stumbo, the 33-year-old senior pastor at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, legalizing pot is largely a question of morality.
Yes, making the drug legal may provide people with more individual freedom, he said. But as Stumbo sees it, such freedom would merely allow people to harm themselves by abusing the drug and becoming addicted.
“I don’t know that that’s necessarily freedom,” Stumbo said. “We have to create laws for the benefit of society — for the greater good.”
“There will always be the percentage of people who use it appropriately, but we can’t account for those who will use it inappropriately,” he said. “Those who use it are mastered by it. They have lost their ability to be free because now they are enslaved to the use of marijuana.”
Stumbo said legalizing pot would lower “the standards we have for kids” and send a message that marijuana is OK to use. “Every time we pass a law, we are saying that it’s morally or ethically permissible.”
And yet, even though he isn’t ready to make the drug legal, Stumbo said efforts to ban it don’t appear to be effective.
“It’s clearly being used quite proficiently,” he said. “We’ve come to a place where we feel we really don’t know how to stop it and it’s a big headache.”
The social worker
Asked if she supports legalizing marijuana, Ilona Kerby paused for a long beat.
“That’s a very good question,” she said finally. “And one over which I have very mixed feelings.”
Kerby, the executive director of Lower Columbia CAP — which provides food, housing and financial and other assistance to thousands of area residents, noted that statistics show more youth using marijuana instead of alcohol, and she worries that trend will accelerate if pot is legal.
“I think legalizing it sends a message,” she said.
Legalization may also affect CAP’s operations, she said. CAP receives the vast majority of its funds from the federal government, which requires that employees and certain volunteers who drive be randomly drug tested. More of CAP’s employees may use marijuana if it’s legal, Kerby said, forcing the agency to fire them if they test positive for the drug or risk losing federal funding.
Still, Kerby, who helped start Cowlitz County’s drug court program and worked as a social worker in the Cowlitz County jail, said she’s seen first-hand how the poor are disproportionately affected by marijuana laws. Low-income pot users get more jail time than the middle class and wealthy, who can afford lawyers who get their clients into diversion programs, Kerby said.
“People who have more resources tend to get deferred sentences or tend to not get as entangled in the court as those who have the resources to go another route,” she said.
That’s an argument in favor of legalization, she said.
Kelso-Longview Chamber of Commerce Director Bill Marcum opposes the initiative, saying it would simply be bad for business. Many employers enforce anti-marijuana policies, and making pot legal could “muddy the waters” and make it difficult to retain those policies, he said.
Businesses “absolutely” have a legitimate interest in preventing employees from smoking pot on their own time, Marcum said. The reason: employees need to be sober in case they are called into work after hours.
He acknowledged that the same standard applies to off-the-job alcohol use, but, “that’s currently legal and I have no control over that. I have no recourse.”
Would Marcum outlaw alcohol if he could? No, he said, though he admitted it’s hard to make a distinction between a worker who shows up impaired on alcohol or marijuana.
“I guess it’s public perception,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m just telling you what I think.”