Measure would make pot busts lowest police priority

03:52 PM PDT on Friday, August 29, 2003


SEATTLE - By this time next month, disturbing the peace in Seattle may draw more police attention than smoking pot.

As it should be, argue backers of Initiative 75.

The measure to be decided by voters in the Sept. 16 primary would make possession of marijuana for adult personal use the city's lowest enforcement priority - lower than petty theft, public drunkenness and drunken driving, lower than traffic violations, and lower than being a public nuisance.

The measure's endorsers include the King County Bar Association, The League of Women Voters, the King County Democrats and several Seattle City Council members.

"I think our police department should be focusing on much more offensive crimes such as domestic violence and robbery," said City Council member Judy Nicastro, who endorsed the measure.

Supporters say that in a time of scarce resources, Initiative 75 would save money now spent on arresting and prosecuting people caught with relatively small amounts of marijuana.

How much money would be saved is not really clear, however. Of the 16,000 misdemeanor cases each year in Seattle, less than one percent are for marijuana possession, according to Kathryn Harper, spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorney's office.

Harper was not able to put a dollar figure on what prosecuting those 150 or so cases actually cost.

Nevertheless, she said the initiative was bad law. She said it is both vague, since it doesn't define what personal use is, and problematic because it would put the city attorney in the position of having to enforce state and federal drug laws on marijuana, but also being told to nearly ignore them.

While not ignored, marijuana laws aren't at the forefront of police activity either, Harper said.

"It's pretty much already not a priority," Harper said.

So what the law does, she said, is give people arrested for pot possession another avenue to challenge their arrest, by claiming police should have been focusing on something else instead.

The statement against the initiative as printed in the King County Voters Guide is signed by Carr, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert.

Although he signed the statement opposing the measure, Carr, ironically, would be in the position of defending it if it were challenged in court.

Initiative 75 supporter Roger Goodman, the acting spokesman for initiative backers, isn't buying the argument that the measure would force cops to ignore the drug laws.

Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project, said it's impossible for police to enforce every law on the books, "so, discretion is being used every minute of every day ... (Initiative 75) sends a message to law enforcement to use discretion wisely," he said.

And whether it's a low priority or not, 500 people per year in Seattle are arrested for marijuana possession and 150 people's lives are seriously affected by convictions, Goodman said. Even a misdemeanor drug conviction can affect educational and job prospects, he said.

"We can't discount the effect on those 150 people's lives," he said.

Apart from the idea of saving money, the effort also signals a growing cultural skepticism of the dangers of marijuana, at least in Seattle.

Supporters of the measure include the King County Democrats, for whom legalization of marijuana has been a platform issue for years, according to Chairman Greg Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said there's ample evidence refuting the assertion that marijuana is particularly dangerous or addictive.

"I'll be honest with you, I smoked a lot of pot in college and after college, and had no problem kicking it," he said.

"Look at the presidential races. Drugs can't even be used as an issue, because they all did it," he said.

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