Washington’s war on pot

Marijuana arrests are on the rise.

POLICE MAKE a marijuana arrest every 46 seconds in this country, 24/7, every day including February 29, according to a recently released study by the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. And that doesn’t mean being given a ticket; according to NORML, arrest means being handcuffed and locked up. Of those busts, more than 88 percent are for simple possession of small quantities of grass, not for growing, transporting, or holding larger amounts for sale.

Seattle Hempfest

Sunday, August 20, 10am-8pm

Myrtle Edwards Park, Pier 70

free admission



Washington still has relatively liberal laws on the books concerning marijuana possession compared to a number of other places where possessing any amount of the herb can net a person several years hard time. This state still makes a distinction between holding a small amount of marijuana, up to 40 grams, for personal use (a misdemeanor) versus growing or holding larger amounts, presumably for sale.

For simple possession, state law calls for a mandatory one day in jail and a fine, typically $250. Defense attorneys who handle a lot of these cases said the overnight incarceration can be waived by a judge in exchange for community service, if the jails are overcrowded. Marijuana felonies (sale, possession of larger quantities, and growing—except in the case of medical marijuana) are treated the same as most other narcotics, with a five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $10,000 possible.

In terms of enforcement, Washington state came out in about the middle of the pack in the study, compiled from published 1995-97 crime statistics by public policy analyst Jon Gettman. Although this state has not been as eager to nab its stoner citizens as some, Washington has been showing an increasing interest in pot, with total arrests for marijuana climbing by more than a third, from about 9,000 statewide in the middle of the last decade to over 12,000 three years later. While statistics for this year are not yet available, defense attorneys who represent drug defendants say the numbers appear to be running apace and in some areas are increasing.

“An increasing number of our clients who run a red light and admit to having smoked marijuana in the last several hours are finding themselves charged with” driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs, says Brad Maryhew, a local defense attorney. Maryhew sees many such cases as supervisor of the misdemeanor unit at the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, one of the six legal organizations in King County that provides attorneys for poor defendants. The reason for the increase in marijuana DUIs, he claims, is a recent state Supreme Court ruling that specially trained drug-recognition experts can provide “probable cause” to demand a blood test for drug use.

Initiative 692, which legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical use, has not affected arrests, according to Maryhew. “On the misdemeanor side, where you’re talking about possession of a small amount of marijuana, we have not seen a huge change since the medical marijuana initiative was passed,” notes Maryhew. “If a defendant can prove that they suffer from one of the particular illnesses and a physician has recommended the marijuana to alleviate one of those symptoms, then it’s my sense that the prosecutors are not pursuing those cases, but those are rare circumstances.”

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the King County Prosecutor’s Office, confirms that prosecutors have been told not to charge people with possession in clear-cut medical marijuana cases. Furthermore, he claims King County has not prosecuted any cases against people growing marijuana for medical purposes since the initiative took effect.

In spite of that, King County has the highest number and percentage rate of marijuana arrests in the Puget Sound area. Between 4,300 and 4,500 arrests have been made in King County in each of the last two years. The vast majority of the arrests are for simple possession: 4,156 in ’98 and 4,295 in ’99. Numbers of busts run as much as 30 percent higher than the state average, and range between 50 and 100 percent more than rates in either Pierce, Snohomish, or Kitsap counties. Nearly 3 in 1,000 people were arrested in King County for marijuana violations last year, with the highest rate by far in Bellevue, where there were 887 arrests (all but 30 for simple possession)—a number approaching one percent of the city’s 106,000 residents.

In fact, Bellevue has been responsible for about 20 percent of all the reported marijuana arrests in the county, despite having only about seven percent of the county’s total population. Considering how much lower the rates were in nearby communities such as Newcastle, Redmond, and Issaquah, one might wonder if Bellevue is uniquely hostile territory for tokers.

Government agencies and antidrug groups consistently insist that no one gets arrested for marijuana offenses any more. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite. Gettman’s study concluded: “More people in the United States are arrested for marijuana offenses today than ever before. Marijuana arrests have doubled in the United States over the last decade despite considerable public opposition. It is time to focus more closely on the costs and benefits of these historic arrest levels and whether or not they meet the standards for criminal sanctions in a just and free society.”

Local policymakers seem unmoved by NORML’s arguments. Dick Van Wagenen of Governor Gary Locke’s staff says, “It’s no secret” that possessing marijuana is a crime. He continues, “People who are doing it presumably know they are committing a crime, and they make a decision to do that on, I suppose, some sort of cost/benefit calculation of their own. I don’t think Governor Locke supports legalizing marijuana. I’ve never had any indication that he did.”

This weekend, people attending Hempfest, promoted as “the nation’s largest and most political cannabis event,” will be protesting the record number of arrests in Washington. As Gettman noted in the NORML study, the more time and money gets spent on enforcing the marijuana laws, “the more important it has become for the government to justify these arrests and the accompanying economic and social costs.”