Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director at the Washington state ACLU, poses with a plaque containing the marijuana she purchased at Seattle's Cannabis City retail marijuana store on July 8, 2014. (Elaine Thompson, The Associated Press/pool)

Opinion: On Washington’s first pot sales and looking out for one another

Summer doesn’t arrive in Seattle until July 5.

It’s like Mother Nature cracks herself up every year, raining on our Fourth of July barbecues and fogging up our fireworks. We dutifully groan, roll our eyes and chuckle that the sun will come out as soon as we go back to work.

Sure enough, the sun was out in full force on Tuesday July 8, with barely a wisp of cloud in the sky, as hundreds lined up around Cannabis City, Seattle’s first legal marijuana shop. Owner James Lathrop had advised people to bring umbrellas as sun protection, and the staff provided water to keep customers hydrated. Everyone was hot, sweaty and smiling. It was a beautiful backdrop for reflecting on the journey to the day.

Nineteen months have elapsed since Washington state voters passed Initiative 502, a period only slightly longer than the campaign itself. Some may have found the wait interminable, but within that time, a state agency built the regulatory framework for this intoxicant from the ground up. The U.S. Department of Justice published policy guidance to release some of the tension between state and federal marijuana laws. The UN General Assembly scheduled a Special Session on international drug policy for 2016.

And Washington state marijuana arrests plummeted.

I took on the work of reforming our marijuana laws after representing hundreds of people charged with state and federal crimes and facing forfeiture of their homes, cars and personal property. I am a strong believer in laws that are both effective and fair. Experience and research taught me that marijuana prohibition is neither, and my parents taught me that if you see a wrong, try to right it.

Experience has also taught me that while laws can be catalysts of change, it is we the people who breathe life into them and give them their form. Yesterday finally afforded me my first glimpse of what Initiative 502 might become.

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One of the greatest fears of prohibitionists is that “legalization” means soulless commercialization — pursuit of profit to the point of hurting people. It’s a legitimate concern grounded in our experiences with alcohol and tobacco. It’s also why Initiative 502’s 25% marijuana excise tax is dedicated to effective protective strategies that currently receive little to no funding.

Ultimately, though, it will be the people running the marijuana businesses that will determine how robust those taxes need to continue to be. Our beautiful, messy democracy is on a constant quest to find the ideal balance between individual freedoms and responsibilities on the one hand, and looking out for one another on the other. Marijuana is an intoxicant, and people can get into trouble with intoxicants, especially youth and some vulnerable adults. Owners that value social responsibility and community welfare as much as profit, and exhibit it in their business practices, reduce the need for government to step in to provide protection.

As I watched the staff at Cannabis City interact with Seattle’s first customers and met the producers of the marijuana those customers were purchasing, I felt myself smile. I’m confident that we are off to a good start, with good people stepping up to take the lead.

Alison Holcomb is the criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington state. Previously she was the primary drafter of Initiative 502, which Washington voters passed in 2012 to license and regulate marijuana production and distribution and allow the possession and sale of retail marijuana, and the campaign director for New Approach Washington, the yes-on-I-502 political action committee.

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