Taking Another Pot Shot

Initiative 75 wont change marijuana laws, but it could change the way those laws are enforced.

In a state that has seen its share of bizarre lawmaking by initiative, Seattle's upcoming I-75 looks pretty straightforward. The meat of "An Ordinance to Establish a Sensible Marijuana Law Enforcement Policy in Seattle" is crammed into its first paragraph of just 33 words: "The Seattle Police Department and City Attorney's Office shall make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law enforcement priority."

Simple, huh? And backed by public-spirited individuals and organizations, among them Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, Democratic state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the League of Women Voters, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Nor, despite their impeccably liberal credentials, do these backers base their support on anyone's right to smoke pot. On the contrary, the Sensible Seattle Coalition's plea for a "Yes" in the voters pamphlet for the Sept. 16 primary election calls for liberating police and prosecutors"who are already over-worked and deserve our strong support"from the onerous burden of busting and jailing marijuana smokers. "Shouldn't our police be allowed to focus on protecting us against serious and violent crime?" the statement continues. "And shouldn't our limited and expensive jail space be reserved for real criminals who commit serious or violent crimes? If you agree, vote YES on I-75."

Perversely, some of the individuals I-75 is trying to unburden aren't appreciative of the attempt. ThreeCity Attorney Tom Carr, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, and King County Sheriff Dave Reichertwere ungrateful enough to sign their names to the voters pamphlet statement against I-75. The three point out there that "prosecution of adults for personal possession of small amounts is . . . already near the bottom" priority for law enforcement. What seems to concern them most is that apparently innocent phrase "where marijuana was intended for adult personal use." There is nothing in the language of the initiative to exclude felony levels of sales or growing: "I will guarantee you that if this passes," Carr says, "the first time we prosecute someone for growing, their lawyer is going to cite it in their defense."

Surprisingly, at least one supporter of I-75 acknowledges that it will challenge the status quo definition of criminality. "I think it's important that we send a message here," says council member Licata. "This is a contribution we can make to our national debate on marijuana policy, which in countries like Canada has already moved far beyond." Opponents agree that I-75 pushes the issue farther than any other U.S. city has so far, but they vigorously deny it would conserve law-enforcement resources. Carr points out that nearly nine-tenths of the initiative deals with setting up an elaborate reporting and assessment procedure: First it would create an 11-member Marijuana Policy Review Panel (made up of five public officials, plus four legal and drug experts and two "community members"); the review panel would then establish rules for the police and city attorney to report on all marijuana arrests and prosecutions and for processing the data through the review panel semi-annually; and finally, the panel would submit a "comprehensive written report" to the City Council in the fall of 2006. Subject of the report? How well I-75 is working. In their voters pamphlet material, supporters assert that this administrative apparatus will cost "NOTHING," because the police already collect the mandated data and the members of the panel would serve without pay. Long-suffering taxpayers are best qualified to judge the truth of that claim.

The initiative's opponents aren't above their own slippery tactical games. A substantial percentage of their voters pamphlet statement is devoted to familiar, undocumented assertions about the deleterious health effects and addictive properties of marijuana. Whether scientifically founded or not, the relevance of these arguments might seem questionableuntil one recalls that primary-vote turnout is heavily skewed toward elderly voters, who are much less likely to have any reason to doubt the validity of the (unnamed) studies so authoritatively cited.

Even those of us who consider ourselves better qualified to judge might spare a kind thought for City Attorney Carr, though. If the initiative passes, his office will be charged with supporting its provisions, while state lawspassed by the Legislature last time Seattle looked like it was going its own way on marijuana liberalizationspecifically enjoin him from doing any such thing.

Maybe he won't have to try to play both offense and defense for very long. You don't need a law degree to see that passing a law telling public officials how to (or not to) enforce an existing law seems an odd use of the initiative process. Backers of I-75 claim a precedent for their approach in a 1993 statute authorizing the chief of police to disregard break-in alarms from locations responsible for more than their share of dud calls. If that's all the law I-75 has going for it, be sure that if it passes, the issue will likely end up being decided not by the voters butlike most other initiatives these daysby a judge.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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