INITIATIVE 75: NOVEMBER BALLOT SEEMS CERTAIN
City initiative to lower pot possession arrests files signatures

by Mike McNamara
Contributing Writer, Seattle Gay News

On Tuesday, July 22, the Sensible Seattle Coalition filed 19,600 signatures with the county elections board to put Initiative 75 on the November ballot. If passed, I-75 will lower the priority of enforcement for marijuana possession by the Seattle Police Department. 17,228 signatures are needed to put the initiative on the ballot, so with 2,372 signatures over the required amount it looks poised for the ballot box. The Coalition and supporters are continuing to solicit signatures, however, as they need a cushion to cover the signature repeats and other discrepancies commonly found once the petitions are verified. With Hempfest coming up it should be a slam dunk that I-75 backers will have the required signatures. As a local initiative, I-75 has Seattle's built-in liberal Democratic base to make passing in November a distinct possibility.

The ballot title, written by the city attorney, follows: "City of Seattle Initiative Measure Number 75 concerns the enforcement of certain marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law-enforcement priority. In addition, The City Council President would be required to appoint an 11-member panel to assess the measure's effects and submit a written report to the City Council. The Seattle Police and City Attorney would be required to report marijuana arrests and prosecutions to the panel semi-annually. Should this Initiative be enacted into law?" After organizing in the fall of 2000, Sensible Seattle made an attempt to put a similar initiative, I-73, on the ballot in 2001. Signature gathering was "tough" says Dominic Holden, 25-year old Gay Seattle resident and I-73 campaign worker and I-75 campaign manager. He commented that after 9/11 last fall, the signature gathering became "challenging" and they failed to make the goal.

So they refiled in 2002 with a text originally crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) as part of their Drug Policy Project. Sensible Seattle is now ready to put I-75 on the ballot and Seattle voters will get a chance to revisit the marijuana issue.

After successfully passing a statewide marijuana use initiative, Washington state residents voted for the legal use of marijuana medicinally, a sign that citizens of Washington are clearly rethinking marijuana use generally.

I-75 intends to "make...marijuana...intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law enforcement priority." This line changes the debate from decriminalization to enforcement priority. I-75 also creates a "Marijuana Policy Review Panel to asses and report on the effects of this ordinance," and requires the police and the City Attorney's office "report marijuana arrests, and prosecutions, including those undertaken in Seattle by the King County Prosecutor's Office for arrests made in Seattle, to the Marijuana Policy Review Panel an a semi-annual basis." The preceding requirements are the first time that these have been included in a marijuana reform law. Complete copies of the Initiative are at www.sensibleseattle.org.

According to Holden, 97 percent of all marijuana arrests are not clearly labeled and filed as "miscellaneous." He estimates the real numbers are in the hundreds at any one time. Because of this labeling, accurate marijuana arrest statistics for Seattle are not available. Statewide in 2000, a full 91 percent of all marijuana arrests were for possession only, not growing or sales.

Under Washington state law, Seattle citizens could serve up to 90 days in jail and pay as much as $1,000 for possessing as little as one gram of marijuana.

"Our current marijuana policies are not being equally enforced. African Americans are more than four times as likely than Caucasians to be arrested for marijuana possession despite the fact that marijuana is used equally by both communities," says Holden.

According to the U.S. census and Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), in 2000, African Americans comprised eight percent of Seattle population yet made up 35 percent of all Seattle's arrests for marijuana possession.

When asked for comment on Initiative 75, two City Council members weighed in with their feelings. Richard McIver, though ambivalent, says he, "Does not encourage the use (of marijuana) but we don't want to fill the jails. It costs to put people in jail, it should be treated more like alcohol."

Nick Licata, supporter of Sensible Seattle and endorser of the I-75 signature drive says, "I support Initiative 75. There are better uses of the Police's time." Licata talked about the rise in car prowlings, and home burglaries in Seattle. He "would like to see these as priorities, not identify people smoking pot."

When asked what this initiative would do for the larger, non-using community, Holden replied, "With the City and the County challenged to close parks because of recent funding shortfalls, it makes no sense to arrest ordinary people that are not part of our crime problem. Marijuana use has no impact on our society."

You can sign a petition by going to www.sensibleseattle.org and filling out the form, printing it and sending it to P.O. Box 45622, Seattle, WA, 98145, by August 10. Signatures will also be gathered at Hempfest, August 17 and 18 in Myrtle Edwards Park.