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Washington State Proves It’s More Liberal than Amsterdam

Seattle, WA—Some 6.8 million Americans awoke today confident that their state is not only the most progressive in the nation, but even more so than Canada and Amsterdam. That’s because, while Colorado voters legalized pot and Maine and Maryland voters approved gay marriage yesterday, Washingtonians accomplished both feats with two historic ballot measures that cemented the liberal-utopian reputation of this upper-left corner of the continental United States.

The laws won’t take effect until early December, at which point same-sex couples can marry and people may possess up to an ounce of usable marijuana buds (or 16 ounces of marijuana-infused “edibles,” or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused sodas, teas, or juices). The difference between this law and marijuana-decriminalization laws already on the books in 14 other states? A person can still suffer civil penalties for possession in certain circumstances in those states, but in Washington “there will be no penalty whatsoever,” says Alison Holcomb, the author and campaign director for Initiative 502. “It will no longer be a crime to possess marijuana on Washington soil as long as you’re 21 years old.”

The federal government has been remarkably quiet on the subject, even though polls showed pot legalization here to be only a matter of time. President Obama’s drug czar didn't visit to warn Washingtonians—who have enjoyed lawful medical marijuana for years—against fully legalizing a substance that the federal government still considers as dangerous as heroin. And Obama himself, although he was paying close enough attention to this state’s ballot to endorse the marriage equality measure, remained silent on the pot vote. Nanda Chitre, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, said Wednesday of the Washington and Colorado legalization measures: “We are reviewing the ballot initiatives and have no additional comment at this time.” Such no-comments give pot activists like Holcomb hope that the president is willing to move pot forward nationally in his second term—or, at the very least, that he’s willing to adopt a states’-rights approach. “What we want to show the rest of the nation,” Holcomb said, “is that marijuana reform is not an all or nothing proposition. That you can take measured steps, and make adjustments, and watch closely what happens.”

This measured approach is part of what brought both of these ballot initiatives to the political tipping point in Washington this year. Marriage activism here dates back more than 40 years, to one of the first lawsuits ever filed in America on behalf of a same-sex couple’s desire to marry, Singer v. Hara. It started when a New York–born gay Jewish radical named John Singer (who later changed his name to Faygele ben Miriam) walked into a Seattle marriage license office in 1971 and demanded to marry a man named Paul Barwick. The case was dismissed by the state court of appeals in 1974, but a conversation had begun.

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In 1987, the state’s first openly gay legislator, Cal Anderson, was appointed to the House from Seattle, and in 1993 (two years before he died of AIDS), he saw one chamber of the legislature pass a gay civil rights bill for the first time. It would take the state’s second openly gay legislator, Ed Murray, a representative from Seattle, until 2006 to get both chambers to finally pass the measure, which simply provided gays and lesbians with basic protections against discrimination in housing and employment. But they had crushing setbacks in between: Advocates had tried to put the civil rights bill up for a popular vote in 1997, only to see it go down in 38 of the state’s 39 counties, and the next year, on Valentines Day, the state legislature passed a Defense of Marriage Act, limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

It was that law that 52 percent of voters overturned on Tuesday, concluding an incremental strategy in the works here for the last decade—from passage of the gay civil rights bill in 2006 to passage of basic domestic partnership rights in 2007, and then passage of “everything but marriage” domestic partnerships in Washington in 2009. “Once we finally started winning,” said Jamie Pedersen, the newest gay state legislator from Seattle, “then we sort of took a baby step forward and retrenched and defended, and then took another baby step forward.” (He cheered the marriage equality victory at a downtown Seattle party on Tuesday night, and hopes to legally marry his partner of eleven years on their July 3 anniversary. Murray, now a state senator, hopes to do the same with his partner of 21 years.)

The story is similar with pot. Reform advocates lost a 1997 bid to legalize medical marijuana by popular referendum, but came back the next year and won. Then, in 2003, Seattle voters passed a measure making marijuana arrests officially the lowest priority for police officers. Along the way, “Hempfest,” a huge annual pot legalization rally and celebration in downtown Seattle that started in 1991, kept on showing that, as Holcomb put it, “Hey, you can have a big party in the middle of the city and focus on marijuana and the sky doesn’t fall.”

By this year, public acceptance of both efforts had become so mainstream that few could claim to be surprised by ads promoting marriage equality and marijuana legalization. (The pot ad also noted the revenue marijuana legalization would generate. Estimates say that Washington, which is facing a huge budget shortfall, could generate as much as $1.9 billion in five years by taxing and regulating legalized marijuana.) “It’s a huge, dramatic milestone,” said Pedersen, speaking of the gay marriage vote. “It has the potential to really snowball in terms of momentum.” Holcomb was feeling the same way about her measure’s success. “The notion that this might be the hammer that strikes the blow that cracks the wall, and finally starts to take U.S. marijuana law apart—it’s a pretty good feeling,” she said.

At the respective election-night victory parties, where celebrants smoked joints openly and gays and lesbians talked of marrying their partners, some marveled at the state’s new reality by pointing out that in Washington—and only in Washington—do people have the right to marry the same sex while getting high.

Eli Sanders is an associate editor at The Stranger.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the how Cal Anderson came to hold office, and mischaracterized the contents of a marijuana-legalization ad.