OLYMPIA, Wash. — Backers of an effort to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use in Washington state submitted more than 340,000 signatures to try to qualify their initiative on Thursday, a move protested by legalization supporters who say the proposal harms medical marijuana patients.
About a dozen protesters carried signs that read "Legalize, not penalize," and shouted as members of New Approach turned in signatures for Initiative 502 to the Legislature.
"New Approach, telling lies, we don't want your DUIs," the protesters chanted, occasionally interrupting the supporters' efforts to speak to reporters.
The protesters took issue with an element of the initiative that would make it illegal for a motorist to have more than 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in their system. THC is the active ingredient of cannabis.
They argued that medical marijuana patients' levels vary depending on the body's tolerance, putting them at greater risk of arrest.
I-502 would create a system of state-licensed growers, processors and stores, and impose a 25 percent excise tax at each stage. Those 21 and over could buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana; one pound of marijuana-infused product in solid form, such as brownies; or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids.
Alison Holcomb, the initiative's campaign director, said that it cost about $1 million to collect the signatures. The campaign turned in 341,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office, and plan to submit another 10,000 on Friday.
An initiative to the Legislature requires at least 241,153 valid signatures of registered state voters to be certified, though the secretary of state's office suggests at least 320,000 in case of any duplicate or invalid signatures. Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said it would take the state a few weeks to verify them.
Once the initiative goes to the Legislature, lawmakers have to take action during the upcoming 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 9 or the measure automatically goes to the November ballot. The initiative has several high-profile sponsors, including former Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay and travel guide Rick Steves.
Initiative supporter Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, called it a common-sense initiative, but said, "I believe that my colleagues in the Legislature, however, will punt and have the voters vote on it, rather than them voting on it themselves."
Initiative opponent Don Skakie, of Renton, said the law proposed by the initiative will be pre-empted by federal law, and that he would rather see the state eliminate all state penalties tied to marijuana. The drug remains illegal for any use under the federal government.
"When you eliminate penalties, there's no new law to conflict with federal law," he said.
Washington state already has a voter-approved medical marijuana law that gives doctors the right to recommend — but not prescribe — marijuana for people suffering from cancer and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."
Several patients protesting the petition submission Thursday said that they feared their driving rights would be taken away and that they planned to start their own initiative effort to counter I-502. Mimi Meiwes, a registered nurse who uses medical marijuana for her terminal-stage kidney disease, said that the impact on medical marijuana patients would be "absolutely devastating."
"It will make it illegal for cannabis patients to drive a motor vehicle in the state of Washington," she said. Meiwes said that there is no normal THC level for medical marijuana patients, and that it varies from patient to patient.
"As you increase those dosages, the body gets used to it, then you can take higher doses and still function with absolutely no impairment," she said.
Washington isn't the only state considering marijuana legalization. Colorado will vote next year if a similar measure there makes the ballot. Supporters there are expected to turn in signatures in the coming weeks to qualify for the November ballot.