Thursday, December 18, 2003

Pot panel to help city track busts

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist

Forgive this former Deadhead for getting a little giggly about the Seattle City Council's new Marijuana Policy Panel.

Where are they going to meet, in someone's basement before mom gets home? Are they going to serve munchies? Play some Foghat? And shouldn't Ziggy Marley sit in?

Now forgive Dominic Holden for not laughing. He's the man behind Initiative 75, which makes marijuana use by adults a low police priority — and which passed easily last fall. Holden now sits on the panel.

He has heard his share of pot jokes, and read more than enough headlines calling marijuana "an issue of potency," and I-75 "a pipe dream" with a "whiff of a chance."

"It's not very funny," Holden scolded, "to people in jail."

He's right: This panel's dictum is pretty serious stuff.

For once, Seattle will find the proof in the pot-pipe, and gather hard numbers on how much goes up in smoke, by whom, and whether it's worth diverting police from more serious crimes, and filling our jails and courtrooms.

Better yet, the panel will put the longtime, grassroots argument about pot square on the table of City Hall.

The panel has yet to convene, but it looks as though I-75 already has had an impact.

Seattle police reported making 418 marijuana arrests in 2001 — an average of about eight a week. In the six weeks since I-75 was passed, there have been fewer than five arrests, Holden said.

"It's already saving taxpayers money for investigation, arrests, prosecution and incarceration," Holden said.

Councilman Nick Licata, also on the panel, agreed: "It is pretty much in effect."

But the real cost-benefit analysis of the measure will come when the panel tracks and reviews marijuana use, busts and costs.

Some notable names on the panel: City Attorney Tom Carr; public defender D'Adre Beth Cunningham; criminal defense attorney Alison Chinn Holcomb; Kris Nyrop, executive director of Street Outreach Services; and Kenneth D. Stark, director of the Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

The panel will put together reporting criteria for the Police Department, whether marijuana busts are discriminatory and whether deprioritizing dope causes an increase in use. There is always that worry.

But there are also some pretty high hopes, if you'll excuse the pun.

Holden is convinced the panel will find that I-75 saves significant taxpayer money.

It may even create "a greater connection" between pot smokers and city services, he ventured.

"It would be terrible if people didn't call 911 for help because they're worried about a joint on the coffee table or a bag of pot in their bedroom."

Andy Ko, director of the ACLU of Washington's Drug Policy Reform Project, thinks the panel's findings could become a national model.

"It is just one step in rationalizing our drug policies in this country," he said. "This is something that people are ready for."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

She goes straight for the Phish Food.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company