Marijuana reform got a big boost when Bill Gates mentioned his support during an interview at BuzzFeed.com. The former CEO of Microsoft Corporation, the largest software company in the world, and literally the richest man in the world, he’s the philanthropist who’s in the process of donating the majority of his $60 billion dollars to world health care. At the end of January he made a big splash when mentioning his support for ballot initiative 502. In his home state of Washington, this initiative made marijuana legal. It described the rules and limits on possession, sale and usage.
During the interview, Gates mentioned how he supported the initiative but didn’t really think it would pass. He and others were surprised when it won 56% of the popular vote and became the law of the land. Afterwards he noted, “It will be interesting to see how it plays out.” Known for his intelligence, his opinions on the matter appear well thought-out. “It’s an experiment, and it’s probably good to have a couple states try it out to see before you make that national policy,” he said.
When pressed about his personal use he became more cautious, flatly refusing to answer a direct question of whether he smoked or not. Still, he’s listed on the Marijuana Policy Project’s ranking of “influential marijuana users”. In a 1994 biography, written by Stephen Mannes, Gates hit all the advocate talking points used to calm down the haters: Can they keep it out of minors’ hands? Will it reduce alcohol consumption? Are there some people who use it at levels you might think of as inappropriate? Will drug gangs make less money?
His ability to deeply research and analyze a subject is legendary in the software industry. It’s clear he did his homework.
The legalization in Washington state, while good news for all advocates, certainly isn’t a free-for-all. It legalized possession for adults 21 and older. There are now well-defined levels of THC that define DUI violations. Only specially-licensed Washington farmers are allowed to grow it, and licensed marijuana-only stores can sell it. These licenses are given out by a “lottery” system allocated among only the applicants with exactly correct paperwork (only 8 out of 10 applicants do it right). Marijuana-containing products get a whopping 25% sales tax, which is over triple the amount charged for regular goods. Any incoming taxes are then divided up. 40% of it goes to the State General Fund, which can be used for any state spending. The remainder is specially earmarked for substance-abuse prevention, education, research and health care programs. Just like with alcohol and cigarettes, advertising is restricted.
In its broad outline, the new law is similar to the Colorado initiative, with just a few points of difference. These include: different license fee amounts, a residency requirement, stores and growers have distinct licenses, growing is allowed to be outdoors, local governments can’t veto license granting and sales are allowed to start a bit sooner. The most important difference between the two laws is that in Washington, personal growing is not allowed at all. Still, now that the main hurdle of legalization is over, minor law changes will be easier to get passed… as long as the voters want it enough.