After I-75: Seattle's Move to De-Prioritize Marijuana Arrests Is Working
By Eli Sanders
What kind of drug experts are awake at 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning?
Normally, one would expect to see only the most ragged tweakers on Capitol Hill up at such an hour. But in Seattle last week a bunch of middle-class professionals -- drug experts all -- were gathered bright and early in a dim conference room at the downtown Red Lion. They wore business attire and academic eyewear, carried laptops and lattes, and shared one common goal: to dismantle the war on drugs.
This was decidedly not the Hempfest crowd. Instead, the people at this conference represented the intellectual vanguard of the drug-law reform movement: physicians, psychiatrists, attorneys, policy experts, teachers, and social workers who feel that the current drug war is a failed policy in need of radical revision. They had come to Seattle from across the country because it seemed the natural place for a gathering of those at the forefront of thought on illicit drugs.
While Americans may tend to think of San Francisco as the likely center for any drug-related movement, and while it may seem surprising to think that Seattle could be at the vanguard of anything at this moment, given the prevailing feeling of stuckness on civic issues in this city, it turns out we're ahead of the rest of the country on this one. Largely below the radar, Seattle has moved to the new cutting edge of American social policy on adult drug use.
The most obvious example of this is Initiative 75, passed by a strong majority of Seattle voters in 2003. The measure mandated that arrests of adult marijuana users would become the lowest priority for law enforcement agencies in the city, all but decriminalizing pot smoking in Seattle. It was opposed by drug warriors from U.S. Drug Czar John Walters on down to Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr, but it nevertheless succeeded in radically altering the climate for pot smokers here, and has become the model for subsequent similar measures in Oakland, Denver, and Columbia, Missouri.
Add in Seattle's innovative drug court, which allows people convicted of drug crimes to choose treatment over incarceration, and the King County Bar Association's new and groundbreaking blueprint for drug-law reform in Washington State, and this city emerges as something of a demonstration project on drug reform for the rest of the country.
It's all part of an intentional, coordinated effort by local activists. The aim, says Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project and an organizer of the conference, is simple and exceedingly ambitious: "Change the culture."
First, here in Washington. Then, slowly, across the United States.
Initiative 75, if you believed those who warned against its passage in 2003, was going to confuse kids, lead to an explosion of marijuana use, and squander taxpayer money on a citizen review board to study the effects of the new law. None of this has happened, even according to Carr, the city attorney, who had warned before the law's passage that I-75 was "wrong for our children and our community."
Marijuana-related case filings by the city attorney's office have dropped sharply since I-75 took effect, from 178 filings in 2003, the year the initiative passed, to 59 filings in 2004. That's a 67 percent reduction in arrests, prosecutions, and jail sentences connected to marijuana use -- and a similarly large reduction in the angst felt by local dope smokers, the lives altered by jail time for smoking some pot, and the taxpayer money spent sending stoners through the legal system. (As of this November the number of marijuana-related filings by Carr's office was set to decline again in 2005, with only 35 filings reported in the first 11 months of this year.)
At the same time, the predictions of mass confusion and increased pot smoking among Seattle's youth have not come to pass. A survey of students in the Seattle Public Schools, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, found that the number of 10th and 12th graders who reported using marijuana within the last 30 days had actually declined slightly between 2002 and 2004.
As opponents of I-75 point out, the percentage decline is very slight (less than 2 percent in both grades). But the backers of I-75 respond that they never promised that pot smoking among high schoolers would disappear as a result of the initiative; they just said the concerns of an explosion of pot smoking among Seattle's younger generations were unfounded -- and the survey appears to prove that this position was correct.
In addition, the "waste of taxpayer dollars" predicted by Carr is nowhere to be seen. He now describes the financial cost of I-75 as "a small marginal cost" -- the cost of, for example, photocopying data on marijuana arrests for the Marijuana Policy Review Panel, whose members are not paid for their time.
Faced with this evident lack of I-75-induced cataclysm, Carr now openly admits he was wrong about some of the law's predicted negative impacts. But he is still not any closer to thinking it might have been a good idea. "It's a silly law that was enacted for political purposes," he says. These days he employs a strategy of minimizing the law's positive impact, suggesting it was unnecessary in the first place, and ineffective as a program for social change in the second.
Perhaps as part of that minimizing, Carr told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last month that there were only 74 marijuana cases filed in Seattle in 2002, making it seem like the drop to 59 cases in 2004 was statistically insignificant. I-75, he told the paper, "had little to no effect." In fact, data provided by his office to the Marijuana Policy Review Panel shows there were actually 161 cases in 2002, making the drop to 59 cases two years later much more significant.
When I contacted Carr's office about this discrepancy, his special assistant, Ruth Bowman, at first blamed the error on the author of the P-I story, Mike Lewis, whom she said had misquoted Carr. Shortly after I contacted Lewis about this claim, Carr's story changed.
Bowman recanted, and said Carr had not been misquoted by Lewis. She told me support for the 74 figure would be coming soon. A few minutes later, Bowman e-mailed me a dense page of data that it turned out had nothing to do with 2002 marijuana filings. When I pointed this out, she sent me new data, without comment. It was the correct data, and it directly contradicted Carr's 74 figure. It showed that the number of marijuana filings in 2002 was 160, almost exactly the same as the 161 filings claimed by the Marijuana Policy Review Panel (and more than twice as many as Carr claimed when speaking to the P-I in November). I asked Bowman if Carr still stood by his statement to the P-I. The next day, Carr e-mailed to say he was sorry if he'd made a mistake, but added defiantly: "If you want to go ahead and suggest that the marijuana initiative made a difference, you will be mistaken. It made no difference whatsoever."
Funny numbers aside, on a more philosophical level, Carr argues that I-75 is bad for democracy. "In a democracy, you change the law if you don't like it," he says. By downgrading enforcement of state and federal law to the "lowest priority" in one particular city, I-75 actually "undermines law," he says. If activists want to decriminalize marijuana possession, Carr believes, "the place for marijuana reform is really at the state and federal levels."
Dominic Holden, a longtime Carr adversary on marijuana issues who came up with the idea for I-75 and chaired the initiative campaign, admits that on a purely philosophical level, I-75 is imperfect. But it's not meant to be a permanent fix. Rather, it's meant as a temporary object lesson on the benefits of drug-law reform, en route to broader reform at the state and federal levels.
"Think of this as Seattle's interim measure for dealing with a state and federal policy that we find ineffective," he says. "People all over the country are looking at what's happening here. And our positive experience with I-75 will act as armor against what the federal government and the conservative state legislators will argue when we move to decriminalize marijuana over a broader area than just Seattle."
Mikki Norris, a board member of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, the group that in November of last year made marijuana busts the lowest law enforcement priority in that city, agrees with Holden. She said Oakland's Measure Z was heavily influenced by the model of Seattle's I-75.
"It's been real helpful to us," Norris said. "It was inspirational to the movement in general. It gave a lot of people things to think about." Next year, she said, similar measures will be run in four California cities, probably Santa Cruz, West Hollywood, Santa Barbara, and Santa Monica. (San Francisco and Berkeley both passed laws in the 1970s against allocating police resources toward marijuana busts, but these laws differ from the newer Seattle law, Holden says, in that they don't establish a citizen review panel. They're also more than 30 years old, remnants of a different historical moment in drug control, one that came to a close during the Carter administration.)
The question, then, is not whether more American cities will follow the recent example of Seattle. It seems clear that many more will, establishing a chain of urban refuges from zealous enforcement of federal and state marijuana laws, and making the case to the rest of the country that marijuana decriminalization can work. The real question is: What comes next?
That's where last week's conference in Seattle sought to enter the debate. The conference, sponsored by the King County Bar Association, aimed to imagine an "exit strategy," not just from the war on pot, but also from the larger war on drugs, which conference participants unanimously described as a failure. ("A fool's errand," "Like shoveling water," "A war on poor people and vulnerable people.")
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper was at the conference, and in an editorial that appeared the following Sunday in the Seattle Times, he called for the legalization of drugs -- "all of them."
"I've never understood why adults shouldn't enjoy the same right to use verboten drugs as they have to suck on a Marlboro or knock back a scotch and water," Stamper wrote. "Prohibition of alcohol fell flat on its face. The prohibition of other drugs rests on an equally wobbly foundation. Not until we choose to frame responsible drug use -- not an oxymoron in my dictionary -- as a civil liberty will we be able to recognize the abuse of drugs, including alcohol, for what it is: a medical, not a criminal, matter."
In a more than 100-page document produced by the King County Bar Association earlier this year, much the same argument is made, albeit with a lot more footnotes and slightly less accessible language than Stamper uses. The dense document, however, may end up being more significant than the editorial by Stamper, or even any of the "demonstration projects" in cities that make marijuana busts a low priority. It is part of a "grass tops" effort to give opinion leaders and policymakers a way of thinking about life after the war on drugs, and the fact that it comes from a deliberative body made up of well-informed lawyers makes it all the more persuasive for the many politicians and civic leaders who already silently doubt the drug war's efficacy.
The report imagines the State of Washington controlling the distribution of currently illegal drugs, with softer drugs like cannabis perhaps being taxed and sold only to citizens who meet certain requirements (old enough, a resident of Washington, not too intoxicated at time of purchase), while harder drugs like heroin and crystal meth might only be given out under medical supervision to addicts involved in treatment.
It's hardly the Bacchic free-for-all that backers of the status quo imagine when they talk worriedly about decriminalization. In fact, it could end up, in practice, being far more restrictive than the current drug-control regime. The aim would be to reduce crime by drying up the illegal markets for illicit drugs; improve public health by focusing state efforts on treating, rather than imprisoning, addicts; and protect children better by cutting down on the black-market drugs available to them while also cutting down on the incentive of drug gangs to lure children into black-market drug work.
Roger Goodman, the bar association Drug Policy Project director who spoke of wanting to "change the culture" when it comes to drugs, oversaw the creation of the document, which has the kind of prosaic title favored by policy wonks, "State-Level Regulation as a Workable Alternative to the 'War on Drugs.'" But rather boldly, it includes a resolution by the bar association calling on the state legislature to begin studying ways out of the war on drugs. The legislature declined to do so last session, but Goodman takes the long view. "You can't accomplish something like this in a short period of time," he says. The bar will be back this session, asking the legislature to do the same.
In the meantime, as with I-75, bar associations in other states are now eager to mimic the work the King County Bar Association has done on drug reform, which differs from other earlier critiques of the drug war offered by bar associations in that it offers both a critique and a solution. Similar solution-oriented policy reviews are currently being prepared by bar associations in Vermont, Oregon, Alabama, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Georgia, New York, and Washington, D.C.
It's part of a process familiar to other long-term movements aimed at changing entrenched cultural attitudes and counterproductive laws: Take a small step forward, prove to doubters that the world hasn't ended, then take another step forward, and repeat. "I-75 was a pretty big step," Goodman says, echoing that strategy. "And the sky has not fallen."