Washington could become the first state in America to decriminalise marijuana.
SEATTLE is special. Famous for its rain, its billionaires and a movie long ago that forced Meg Ryan and insomnia forever into the jargon of our lives, it has a culture that oozes political correctness. Plastic bags were criminalised years ago and parks are the next target for smoking bans. Bradley Manning is America's real war hero, at least to the demonstrators parked in front of Macy's department store. Last year a local school committee came close to enforcing a rule that Easter eggs, those icons of Christian imperialism, be renamed "Spring spheres".
In the keen eye of veteran local journalist Neil Modie, Seattle is the "Granola-munching, monorail worshipping, gay-rights preaching, church-shunning, flannel-wearing, book-devouring, vegan-dining, obsessively recycling, salmon-protecting, pinot noir-sniffing, latte-sipping, war protesting and bluer-than-blue [Democrat] voting" capital of the known universe.
And Modie would know. After retiring a few years ago from the local rag — what else would you call a newspaper in Seattle than The Post-Intelligencer? — he headed to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and work as a volunteer with the refugees of Darfur.
Seattle is also the home of Amazon and Starbucks, of Boeing and Microsoft. Bill Gates' sprawling, hot-wired mansion has a commanding spot on the eastern shores of Lake Washington. The Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project museum, an out-there chrome cathedral dedicated to rock-pop culture and bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, sits by the stunning galleries and gardens of glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Even the vagrants here are erudite. On the corner of Pine and Sixth avenues, two gentlemen who appear down if not out are deep in philosophical debate. Says one: "Man, you know that you can take a motherf---ing horse to water, but you can not make that motherf---er drink." His friend nods sagely.
Now Seattle is poised to add a dash of notoriety to the left-liberal CV of what a New York Times blogger christened "the Nanny City-State". If a vote on November 6 gets up, as polling strongly predicts, Washington will become the first state in America to decriminalise marijuana.
The so-called Initiative 502 would make it legal for people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of dried marijuana, a pound of marijuana-baked "edibles" or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquids. The proposal has the strong backing of state and city officials, not least for the predicted $500 million annual tax revenue stream from an industry the running of which would shift from crime syndicates to the state Liquor Control Board.
While similar votes are also scheduled in Colorado and Oregon next month, Washington state is being watched as the first test for an initiative that could set it on a collision course with uncompromising federal drug laws — laws that still classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance along with heroin and LSD and prohibit any use. On the eve of the presidential election, neither the Obama nor Romney camps have shown a willingness to bend on the issue.
Seattle being Seattle, this campaign is not a simple matter of allowing potheads to grow pot — after all, isn't the reefer a first cousin of that towering social evil, the cigarette? No, this is a grassroots movement cloaked in the imperative of the great medicinal properties of cannabis sativa and indica.
For years the medicinal marijuana brigade has suffered a similar credibility problem to those who once insisted they bought Playboy for the articles — obviously it was a smokescreen for wankers who did inhale. Now a cavalcade of pain sufferers, including cancer patients and disabled war veterans, are out extolling the virtues of cannabis.
But since Washington state first voted in 1998 to authorise medical marijuana for qualified patients, the quasi-legal medicinal drug trade has exploded in ways that have blurred the boundary between science and fiction.
Already marijuana enterprises outnumber Seattle's ubiquitous Starbucks stores. There are estimated to be more than 150 marijuana-related businesses, the majority of them dispensaries carrying the movement's trademark green cross dot in their front windows, a fig leaf by any other name.
In mid-September the air was thick with dope smoke and feelgood righteousness at a trade exhibition in the Seattle district of Fremont.
"A legal panel debated public policy and a doctor discussed the state of healthcare as girls in bikinis posed near tables of bongs and a guy in a green bear suit offered free hits off a five-foot pipe," reported The Seattle Times, describing the event as "part gourmet weed contest, part trade show, part smoke-in".
A booming trade has sprung up producing "medibles" — goodies enriched with the goodness of grass: taco mix, cotton candy, cannabis-infused vodka, cakes, pies and even cannabis oil-infused pizzas (Pitch: "You'd wanna eat this pie even if one of the side effects weren't making Pink Floyd the best band everrrr.")
But all must, of course, be what the doctor ordered. As Steve Elliott enthused last year in his Seattle Weekly blog: "Cannabis treats have come a long way since those gritty-tasting brownies you made in your college dorm room, man. Bear in mind, however, that you'll need your original, tamper-proof medical-marijuana authorisation from a healthcare professional."
Rival companies extoll the qualities of their product with a reverence normally associated with fine wine and gourmet produce. The website of Seattle's Best Cannabis company (call now for home delivery) declares: "Carrying only Cannabis Cup winners and other world-class strains. Proven F1 genetics grown in rich vegan soil with plenty of light, fresh air and love."
The marketing methods of others sometimes lack the usual gravitas of the medical profession: advertising models in wet T-shirts, free joints for early-bird customers, Facebook raffles and promotional parties with DJs and "medicated" chocolate fountains.
Advocates for a "yes" vote next month argue that legalisation will cut crime and much of the huge cost of enforcing laws against cannabis use. A recent study said 241,000 people in Washington state had been arrested for marijuana possession since 1986 and estimated the associated law enforcement costs at more than $300 million.
Seattle mayor Mike McGinn is a key backer of the initiative. "It's time we were honest about the problems we face with the drug trade," he said earlier this year. "Just like we learnt in the 1920s with the prohibition of alcohol, prohibition of marijuana is fuelling violent activity."
Time will shortly tell whether this is a (vegan) ground-breaking initiative, or merely the last gasp of hippie Seattle's late-life crisis.