Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Seattle votes to make marijuana crime low priority

By Reed Stevenson
Reuters

SEATTLE, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Seattle's citizens have told local police and prosecutors they should make marijuana use the least of their worries and instead provide better protection of homes, streets and neighborhoods.

In a vote hailed a by marijuana advocates as the most progressive in the United States, more than 58 percent of voters endorsed a bill that explicitly requires authorities to "make cases involving marijuana offenses, in which the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the city's lowest law enforcement priority."

The measure also establishes a Marijuana Policy Review Panel to oversee arrests and report on the impact of the initiative.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske was quoted by the Seattle Times as saying the measure would not affect police work on the street. About 400 arrests for marijuana possession are made in Seattle every year.

Keith Stoup, founder and executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, hailed the vote.

"It's very positive to see that a solid majority of the residents in Seattle do not want to waste law resources prosecuting marijuana users," Stoup said, adding that the vote marked a crucial step toward the legalization of marijuana.

ALREADY LOW PRIORITY

The new law, called Initiative 75, was aimed at making easier for adults to possess marijuana in small quantities without having to fear that they will be sent to prison for years for smoking pot.

Critics have said that any law making marijuana use "low priority" is meaningless because it already is a low priority for local police and provides no direction on how to do that.

John Walters, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, came to Seattle earlier this month to talk down the proposed law, calling it a "silly and irresponsible game." The U.S. drug czar said any law making pot use a low law enforcement priority would raise its use among teenagers.

The U.S. West Coast, along with neighboring parts of Canada and Alaska, has long been a haven for marijuana advocates and users.

In Canada, a bill is under consideration that would decriminalize possession of of small amounts of marijuana. People caught with 15 grams (half an ounce, or enough for about 15 to 30 joints) or less of cannabis would only be fined, and criminal penalties would be reduced on those growing up to 25 marijuana plants.

Vancouver, a three-hour drive north of Seattle, is considered a haven for marijuana users where pot is readily available and its use often overlooked. Much of the surrounding Canadian province of British Columbia is a fertile growing area for the drug.

At midnight on Tuesday, 97 percent of votes had been counted and a final tally of the vote, which required a simple majority to pass, is due later this week.

The initiative was endorsed by the League of Women Voters of Seattle, King County Democrats and the Washington state arm of the American Civil Liberties Union.