Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Washington enthusiastically leapt into history Tuesday, becoming the first state, with Colorado, to reject federal drug-control policy and legalize recreational marijuana use.
Initiative 502 was winning 55 to 45 percent, with support from more than half of Washington's counties, rural and urban.
The vote puts Washington and Colorado to the left of the Netherlands on marijuana law, and makes them the nexus of a new social experiment with uncertain consequences. National and international media watched as vote counts rolled into I-502's election-night party in Seattle amid jubilant cheers.
"I'm going to go ahead and give my victory speech right now. After this I can go sit down and stop shaking," said Alison Holcomb, I-502's campaign manager and primary architect.
"Today the state of Washington looked at 75 years of national marijuana prohibition and said it is time for a new approach," she said.
As of Dec. 6, it will no longer be illegal for adults 21 and over to possess an ounce of marijuana. A new "drugged driving" law for marijuana impairment also kicks in then.
Tuesday's vote also begins a yearlong process for the state Liquor Control Board to set rules for heavily taxed and regulated sales at state-licensed marijuana stores, which are estimated to raise $1.9 billion in new revenue over five years.
Many legal experts expect the U.S. Justice Department, which remained silent during presidential-year politics, to push back and perhaps sue to block I-502 based on federal supremacy.
But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said Seattle's U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told him Tuesday the federal government "has no plans, except to talk."
Initiative 502 ran a disciplined campaign with a tightly focused message, criticizing what it called the failed "war on drugs" without endorsing marijuana use itself.
A study, released late in the campaign, found more than 67,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession in the past five years in Washington, with African Americans and Latinos arrested at widely disproportionate rates.
I-502 spent heavily, raising more than $6 million, including more than $2 million from Peter B. Lewis of Ohio, chairman of Progressive Insurance.
A broad group of mainstream leaders — including former top federal law-enforcement officials, the King County sheriff, the entire Seattle City Council, public-health experts, African-American leaders and the state labor council — backed the measure. John McKay, U.S. attorney in Seattle under the George W. Bush administration, became a public face of the campaign.
The initiative faced surprisingly little organized opposition. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and a state drug-treatment-prevention group were opposed, but did not raise money to counter I-502's $2.8 million TV-ad spending in October.
At debates, police and treatment providers predicted I-502 would lead to marijuana use, especially among teenagers. "It is a grave social injustice to trade the right of a minority to get 'high' for the right of youth to grow up drug free," said Derek Franklin, president of the drug-treatment group.
The loudest opposition came from some in the medical-marijuana industry, who said they feared being ensnared by I-502's DUI law, which does not exempt patients.
The DUI law also sets a zero-tolerance level for marijuana for drivers under 21, significantly stiffening current law.
Initiative 502 does not change the medical-marijuana law, leading to allegations that opposition from the industry was self-serving.
Tuesday's result was quickly hailed by activists such as Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He called I-502 "the single most important thing in the marijuana legalization movement in the last 75 years," and predicted it will become a template for other states to confront the federal ban on marijuana.
"That's exactly what happened at the end of alcohol prohibition. I think that's exactly what's going to happen here," Stroup said.
Staff reporter Katherine Long and news researcher Gene Balk contributed.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmartin206.
|How pot measures fared elsewhere|
Five other states voted on marijuana-related measures.
** "Against" vote restores more liberal medical-marijuana law.
As of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A 30-year-old female smokes marijuana in a street party after the election results in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood Tuesday.
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Natalia Fior of Edmonds waves an I-502 sign as supporters cheer the measure's victory at a campaign party Tuesday in Seattle.
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Travel author Rick Steves, an Initiative 502 supporter, celebrates with the crowd at a campaign party Tuesday night at the Hotel Andra in downtown Seattle.