When they head to the polls in less than two weeks, voters in Washington State will do more than help elect a new president – they'll also decide whether to become the first U.S. state to legalize marijuana. And a win for Initiative 502 could have ramifications clear across the border, boosting the bid to legalize the drug in Canada while striking a blow to the multibillion-dollar B.C. bud industry.
Geoff Plant, B.C.'s former attorney-general and a member of Stop the Violence BC, a coalition calling for changes to Canada's drug policies, said in an interview Wednesday that Initiative 502's most important impact north of the border would be politically.
"For a long time, one of the excuses that's been used for why we shouldn't do anything to change the law in Canada is that we can't get too far ahead of the Americans on this issue. If we were to legalize – so the argument goes – we would antagonize our relationship with law enforcement on the other side of the border," he said.
"If Initiative 502 passes … then we're increasingly reaching a point where, in fact, the U.S. law is ahead of Canadian law on this issue. And there's one less reason why Canadian policy makers should insist on the status quo."
Initiative 502 would legalize possession of marijuana for adults in Washington State who are 21 years or older. Farmers would need a licence to grow and their product would be sold in standalone stores. A 25-per-cent sales tax would be applied, with 40 per cent of revenues heading to state and local budgets. The remainder of the revenue would go to substance-abuse prevention and research.
The state would also establish a standard for driving under the influence of marijuana.
Oregon and Colorado also have marijuana legalization on their Nov. 6 ballots. However, polling indicates Washington is the most likely to vote in favour. A poll released by Strategies 360 this week said 54 per cent of likely voters support legalization, while 38 per cent are opposed.
John Anderson, a criminology professor at Vancouver Island University, said in an interview that B.C.'s marijuana industry would be hurt if Washington voted in favour of legalization.
"My prediction would be that there would be less incentive for organized crime to ship the product to a state where it's legalized because the growers in Washington State are going to be in that market, competing in that market," he said, noting there are plenty of other markets out there.
Mr. Anderson is a former correctional officer and vice-president of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Canada). He is also a member of Stop the Violence BC.
Robert Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, agreed the B.C. drug trade could be hurt by the passing of Initiative 502.
"In terms of the marijuana industry, it could well create some major problems for B.C. exporters," he said.
Mr. Plant said he would expect "some impact" on the illicit market, though he wouldn't expect it to be "transformational."
Sergeant Duncan Pound, a federal RCMP spokesman, declined to discuss what impact Washington's initiative could have in B.C. He said the RCMP's role is to enforce Canada's laws without prejudice and said it would be inappropriate to speculate what impact an outside jurisdiction's laws would have.
A message left for the group behind the Washington initiative was not returned.
But Steve Sarich, spokesman for No on I-502, said in an interview said the initiative does nothing to halt the black market. The opposition group has called the initiative "faulty and dangerous" and questioned its financial benefits.
Of course, even if Washington State votes in favour of the initiative, the federal government could attempt to intervene. A Justice Department official recently told television program 60 Minutes the government would take a look at potential dangers from the sale of marijuana.