How Marijuana Laws Have Affected Washington

Washington is a cannabis friendly state. In 2012, Washingtonians voted to legalize recreational marijuana use and set up a state-regulated retail cannabis market. Washington had legalized medical marijuana in 1998. Cannabis use is common in Washington.

In fact, marijuana addiction is the most common substance abuse problem for which young people in Washington seek treatment. In 2013, more than 70 percent of youth admissions to drug treatment programs in Washington were for cannabis, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

It’s also one of the most common overall. Nearly 18 percent of all Washingtonians who sought treatment for drug addiction in 2015 did so because of dependency on cannabis, according to federal data.

Marijuana Laws in Washington

Many Washingtonians believe that marijuana use is acceptable and that cannabis prohibition is more harmful than helpful. The fact that most of Washington’s permissive marijuana laws have been passed by initiative, rather than the state’s Legislature, indicates that Washington’s public at large is not bothered by regular marijuana use or the presence of marijuana users in their community.

Since the 1970s, Washington’s marijuana laws have generally been looser than laws in the rest of the United States. In 1971, Washington’s Legislature made possessing 40 grams or less of marijuana a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. While not as strict as laws in states that still treat marijuana possession in small amounts as a felony, the law was far from full legalization.

After all, marijuana cultivation and distribution were illegal, and many regular users possessed a stash larger than 40 grams at any given time. These users were subject to arrest. In 2011, a few years before legalization, Washington prosecuted 6,879 people for low-level marijuana crimes.

Learn about drug trends in Washington

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Washington had a thriving recreational marijuana market, which trafficked cannabis produced in Washington, Oregon, California and Mexico. Transnational drug trafficking organizations played a part in this market. Illegal, unlicensed marijuana farms run by the Sinaloa cartel were seized in Eastern Washington as recently as 2017.

Still, many Washingtonians were generally accepting of marijuana use and production. This became especially true in the late 1990s, when Washington legalized medical marijuana. Washington voters approved medical marijuana under the 1998 Washington State Use of Marijuana Act, which passed by 59 percent.

At that point, Washingtonians could be examined by a doctor and approved for a medical marijuana card. Marijuana patients could then go to a cannabis dispensary, which was usually run by fellow patients as cooperatives, and obtain the drug.

Medical marijuana contributed to a booming, semi-legal marijuana industry in the state. Black market and medical cannabis production became the state’s second largest cash crop with billions of dollars in value.

Some Washingtonians abused the medical marijuana laws. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some medical professionals were willing to rubber-stamp medical card applications in exchange for cash.

While some pain, AIDS, and cancer patients legitimately used marijuana as medicine, many Washingtonians did abuse the law.

Marijuana use became part of the state’s way of life, and Washington voters decided to legalize the drug. Advocates argued for years that legalization would reduce incarceration, help with the state’s perpetually troubled budget and improve public health outcomes.

In 2012, after a generally one-sided debate in favor of legalization, 56 percent of Washington voters chose to legalize marijuana use and cultivation under Initiative 502. The initiative also created a tax that directed money toward medical research, education and drug abuse treatment.

Effects of Legalization

It’s hard to say whether Washington’s legalization laws will damage public health. So far, the results are encouraging. Cannabis legalization has not increased the amount of cannabis abuse in Washington. In 2015, treatment admissions for cannabis in King County, the state’s most populated county, were lower than in past years. Arrests for cannabis possession and distribution were also down.

That may not be the case ten years from now. For one, public perceptions of marijuana are changing. A peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that Washington teenagers became more likely to hold a favorable impression of cannabis after legalization. They also became more likely to use it at a younger age.

That is troubling. Cannabis has side effects and can have long-term negative health effects, especially if a user primarily ingests cannabis by smoking. Cannabis use impairs motor function, sensory awareness and decision making. Driving under its influence is dangerous. But most dangerously of all, drug addiction becomes harder to treat the longer a person has been using. And cannabis is addictive.

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