While Initiative 502's call for marijuana legalization was conceived with Seattle sensibilities, the campaign is trying to woo Eastern Washington voters with conservative and libertarian messages. It's a tough sell.

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On a rainy Sunday in downtown Spokane, Rick Steves jumped on stage to evangelize for marijuana legalization.

The audience, at the Bing Crosby Theater, was not filled with the usual suspects for a pot rally. White-shoe attorneys sat near ministers. A grandmother, wearing a button opposing gay marriage, quietly feared for the grandson she says might be lost to the stuff.

Steves, the travel author and TV host with folksy charm, said he once was afraid to advocate for marijuana legalization in public, and so appeared as “Jerry” on a Seattle radio show about pot. Not anymore. “I feel like we are on the side of truth here,” Steves told the crowd.

Steves’ appearance was part of a traveling roadshow through red-state Washington on behalf of Initiative 502, which seeks to legalize marijuana. Conceived with Seattle sensibilities, the campaign must also appeal to values on the other side of the Cascade curtain to win on Nov. 6.

The campaign message in the 509 area code weaves conservative and libertarian themes into a liberal idea: Spend less to enforce low-level drug crimes and respect private adult conduct.

“Remember, it’s not pro-pot; it’s anti-pot-prohibition,” Steves told the audience.

It’s a tough sell, in part because as some voters said last week, they assume use would rise, and are uncomfortable with the idea of a state awash in legal pot.

A new poll of registered voters by the University of Washington finds I-502 winning statewide, 51 percent to 41 percent, thanks largely to strong support around Puget Sound. But in Eastern Washington, the measure trails with just 41 percent favoring it and 53 percent saying no.

Business leaders in the region have been mostly silent, but police have not.

In Yakima County, a hub for marijuana trafficking from Mexico as well as outdoor growing, Sheriff Ken Irwin is offended by what he sees as “hollow” arguments for I-502, which he believes would encourage drug use, especially among kids.

Mostly, he scoffs at I-502’s argument that a legalized market would kneecap gangs controlling the marijuana black market.

“To think that by legalizing marijuana, the cartels would be out of business is just naive and absurd,” Irwin said. “Criminals are criminals. They would find a way to undercut the price.”

The politics of legalizing

The last marijuana initiative on a statewide ballot, the 1998 medical-cannabis law, was approved in Spokane County and in the Tri-Cities but handily shot down in Yakima and in Central Washington farm country.

I-502 is a leap beyond that, representing an unprecedented experiment. It would treat marijuana like alcohol — decriminalizing one ounce for adults 21 and over, and regulating and heavily taxing marijuana sold in state-licensed stores.

A state fiscal analysis estimates the state would need to license at least 100 grow farms to supply 187,000 pounds of marijuana a year to feed the retail market — if the federal government doesn’t step in to block the law.

State Sen. Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat who is retiring after two decades in the Legislature, acknowledges it is a big experiment and believes the Legislature would have to tweak the law.

But I-502 “is preferable to the status quo, which has essentially created a lot of law breakers and resources devoted to that,” said Brown. “I think we’re a little more of a civil libertarian state. There’s that western, ‘Let’s let people do what they want’ kind of thing.”

I-502 has used some of its $5.5 million campaign budget to air TV ads featuring former federal law-enforcement officials supporting legalization. That law-and-order appeal may have more sway in Eastern Washington. The often right-leaning editorial boards of The Spokesman-Review and The Wenatchee World endorsed I-502.

But Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political-science professor, hears little talk about legalization. “People are talking about the economy, the economy, the economy. That seems to be what’s on people’s minds, not the social issues” of marijuana and gay marriage, which is also on the ballot.

“I hate to see it come in”

A drive west from Spokane along Highway 2 is a trip through Washington’s most conservative counties, where an “R” next to a candidate’s name assures victory as a “D” does in Seattle.

Mark Smith, editor of the Davenport Times, which has published continuously since 1884, recalled asking the local sheriff about the state medical-marijuana law. “He said, ‘Oh, Mark, don’t go there. We gotta clamp down,’ “said Smith.

Local voters embrace the “self-made man” ethos, and have a libertarian streak, he said. But voters aren’t likely to embrace I-502’s argument that Washington should directly confront the federal prohibition on marijuana.

“The state can vote on it, but the feds are really controlling the whole thing,” said Smith.

A few miles down the road, in the no-stoplight farm town of Creston, Walt Wruble, a retired state criminal investigator, paused outside the Corner Café.

“I hate to see it come in, but it’s probably no worse than what’s already here,” Wruble said. He said he knows people who’ve used marijuana as a first stop to harder drugs, and believes dealers ought to be imprisoned.

He expects I-502 to pass. “I think there’s a lot of no votes over here, but there’s also this feeling of, ‘What are you going to do? There’s already rampant use.’ “

Whether use would rise is unknown; no state has legalized it. A study of the potential impact of marijuana legalization in California in 2010 predicted use could double, bringing it up to the peak consumption rates of the 1970s.

Study co-author Beau Kilmer, drug-policy research coordinator for the RAND Corporation, said cost, taxation and advertising restrictions will determine use. “If anyone thinks they have exact numbers on this, you have to be suspicious,” said Kilmer. “The bottom line is, we just don’t know.”

The changing perception

“I see fields of industrial hemp in Eastern Washington,” said farmer-turned attorney-turned marijuana activist Alex Newhouse, of Granger.

I-502 has pitched its legalization of hemp — the non-psychoactive variety of marijuana — as a boost to Eastern Washington’s agriculture. It could be an attractive option for crop rotation, and a substitute for many fiber-based products.

Under federal law, hemp can’t be grown here, but it is imported, often from China. Newhouse acknowledges that risk-adverse farmers wouldn’t jeopardize their land unless the feds recognize hemp as legal.

But he said I-502 has helped change the politics of marijuana, even among some conservatives. “What’s most fascinating, there’s a lot of people openly discussing this,” he said. “Three years ago, that just didn’t happen.”

David Rolfe, head of a crime-reduction nonprofit called Safe Yakima Valley, agrees that perceptions of marijuana have changed — and that’s what worries him.

Yakima appears to have the most organized local opposition to I-502. Rolfe said he hears from business leaders concerned about lost worker productivity, and educators anxious about their students. Yakima has twice the statewide average for drug treatment among adults; youth rates are 60 percent higher, according to state figures.

“You now have this perception this drug, that is harmful, is somehow healthful and can heal you,” said Rolfe, which he attributes to the medical-marijuana movement. “It concerns me that not only is there a perception among adults about less risk, but it’s also among kids.”

During the recent tour for I-502, Rick Steves seemed prepared for hostile audience questions about kids and marijuana, but they didn’t come. The initiative, he noted, bans possession for people under 21, and has a zero-tolerance policy for youth driving with marijuana in their bloodstream.

But that’s no reason to continue criminalizing adult use, he said.

“I’m a hardworking, churchgoing, child-raising, taxpaying citizen,” he said. “If I want to go home and smoke a joint and stare at the fireplace for two hours, that’s my civil liberty.”

It was the biggest applause line of the night.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.