Friday, July 26, 2002

Marijuana measure may be superfluous, some officials say

By Brian Moore
Seattle Times staff reporter

Some state and local officials say a proposed initiative intended to free police resources for serious crime by relaxing marijuana-law enforcement would do just the opposite, creating burdensome reporting requirements for possession laws that already receive low priority.

"The implication is that there are hundreds of thousands of people in jail because they smoke a joint on Friday night," Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said.

"I have confidence that law enforcement has not made marijuana arrests of casual pot smokers a high priority in the city of Seattle."

Owens speculated the initiative could also create legal hurdles for prosecutors, giving suspected marijuana offenders a legal loophole by pleading that police placed too high a priority on their case.

Members of the Sensible Seattle Coalition filed 19,600 signatures Monday in support of Initiative 75, about 2,400 more than it needs to go before Seattle voters on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The proposed measure does not call for a change in marijuana laws but for law-enforcement officers to make personal marijuana possession by adults their lowest priority.

It also would require police and the City Attorney's Office to report marijuana prosecutions to a Marijuana Policy Review Panel. The 11-person panel, proposed to be created by the Seattle City Council, would evaluate the effects of the ordinance after five years.

The group's campaign manager, Dominic Holden, who has long supported relaxing marijuana laws in Seattle, believes this is the closest that such an initiative has come to reaching the city ballot.

The signatures are now in the hands of the King County Elections office, where they are being screened to ensure they are from registered voters. The initiative would then need City Council approval before landing on the ballot.

At least some council members are already showing support.

Councilman Nick Licata has endorsed the initiative, saying it would help educate the public that marijuana is not as dangerous as some in law enforcement make it out to be.

Licata argues that data support that marijuana is not an addictive drug.

Sara Nelson, legislative aide for Councilman Richard Conlin, who was out of town, said Conlin has not read the initiative but, in general, supports decriminalization of marijuana use.

Other City Council members did not respond to requests seeking comment yesterday.

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske was reviewing the initiative yesterday but was not prepared to comment.

The initiative is unlike most others passed in the United States because it does not limit itself to the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

The Oakland, Calif., City Council passed a resolution in 1996 requiring police to make enforcement of possessing, selling or cultivating marijuana for medical use its lowest priority.

But Lt. Benson Fairow of the Oakland police vice-narcotics section said the city directive has had virtually no effect on law enforcement. Like most agencies, Fairow said, Oakland police weren't placing great emphasis on marijuana users to begin with.

There has not been any indication that the resolution has been effective in shifting police resources toward more serious crime, Fairow said.

"We're not interested in the AIDS patient that is growing a couple of plants, and we never have been," Fairow said.

"Weed has not been a priority for many years, and this resolution didn't really change that."

The Seattle City Attorney's Office reports that less than 150 of its 17,000 misdemeanor criminal cases last year were for the possession of marijuana. That's an indication that police do not place priority on marijuana laws, said Kathryn Harper, spokeswoman for the city attorney.

Licata agrees that police don't put excessive resources into marijuana-possession arrests but likes that I-75 would reinforce its low priority.

"I think that it's better to have our limited funds for public safety being directed toward car prowlers and home burglaries, rather than arresting adults for smoking marijuana," Licata said.

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company