Thursday, September 11, 2003

Drug czar calls Seattle pot initiative a 'con'

By Beth Kaiman
Seattle Times staff reporter

White House drug czar John Walters yesterday condemned a Seattle ballot initiative aimed at making marijuana possession the lowest law-enforcement priority, calling it a "con" and a "silly and irresponsible game."

In Seattle yesterday and today to meet with local officials involved with drug treatment, law enforcement and homeland security, Walters talked of the dangers of marijuana, of increased pot use among teenagers and what he views as society's too-frequent attempts to forgive and condone.

The initiative on Tuesday's ballot, he said, is "designed to send a message that marijuana is a trivial matter."

Backers are promoting Initiative 75 as a way to save limited law-enforcement money for crimes more serious than marijuana possession. The initiative would not decriminalize marijuana.

I-75's call for making possession the "lowest law-enforcement priority," with no specific direction on how to do that, would change little about what police do on the street, critics say. Possession of 40 grams or less is a misdemeanor and police and prosecutors spend little time pursuing such cases, according to City Attorney Tom Carr and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, two of the most public critics of the measure.

Walters' visit, less than a week before the election, represents what has become almost reflex in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — to go to communities considering easing up on marijuana laws, and come down hard.

Last year in Arizona, Nevada and Ohio, Walters made election-time visits to argue against loosening of marijuana laws. He was criticized for using taxpayer money to campaign against local initiatives and for not filing campaign-disclosure forms.

Dominic Holden, a leader in the I-75 campaign, called Walters' visit a "federal intrusion" and an attempt to scare people about marijuana.

Walters maintains that speaking out against drugs is his job, and yesterday he painted the government as the underdog in getting the word out in these local campaigns.

He said he was being forced to fight "big, big money," from people such as the owner of Ohio-based Progressive Auto Insurance, Peter Lewis, who has donated $40,000 to I-75.

"The money here (in the pro-I-75 campaign) is a drop in the bucket," Holden said, "compared to the White House's swimming pool."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company