Two Years Later, Little Fallout From Seattle's Pot Initiative
By Mike Lewis
Since Seattle voters famously made the Emerald City a bit greener by mandating that cops mellow out when it comes to marijuana possession busts, a funny thing has happened.
Nothing. Nada. Nil. No crazy hopheads running amok with "reefer madness." No groundswell of support to legalize the drug (at least no more than usual), and no discernible protest by law enforcement that a pro-drug message effectively has been sent -- or received.
"I'd say it's had little to no effect," said City Attorney Tom Carr, an outspoken opponent of Initiative 75, the 2003 ballot measure that directed Seattle police to make low-level pot busts their lowest priority. "And that's good. It hasn't been a problem. You can tell by the numbers."
What local numbers show is that pot busts have declined since the measure passed. The numbers also show that arrests had declined before voters approved the measure two years ago in September.
Ten years ago, city cops arrested 500 people for personal-use amounts of pot, defined as less than 40 grams, enough for about 50 joints. By 2002, that number had dropped to 74 marijuana cases. Last year, the first year under the new law, it was 59, according to information gathered by Carr's office. So far this year, it's 35.
"I actually look at every case," said Carr, who sits on the pot-arrest monitoring panel established by the initiative. His office has jurisdiction over the city's misdemeanor drug cases. "It tends to be a couple of joints in the possession of someone stopped for something else."
The effort to decriminalize pot smoking isn't confined to Seattle. Voters have approved similar initiatives in Oakland, Calif.; Columbia, Mo., and, just two weeks ago, in Denver.
Broadly, the referendum campaign is part of a national legalization push by marijuana advocates, funded partly by billionaire George Soros among others, who believe some drug laws don't reflect societal values and habits -- at least in some cities.
"From a national point of view, the success in those cities can be replicated elsewhere in the United States," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Not in every city, we know that, but in those places where you have activists on the ground.
"It doesn't happen by people sitting around the fire singing Kumbaya."
In Seattle, Initiative 75 succeeded with $150,000 in funding (partly from the Drug Policy Alliance supported by Soros), publicity through Seattle Hempfest and the efforts of well-organized volunteers working for the Sensible Seattle Coalition.
Councilman Nick Licata, who supported the initiative and is a member of the oversight board, said I-75, "really put police on notice that we would like their time spent on more serious crimes."
Seattle police spokesman Rich Pruitt said the department wouldn't comment on how the initiative has affected it.
"Have we been making it a low priority according to the initiative? Apparently," Pruitt said.
Dominic Holden, who was chairman for the I-75 effort, said the measure is working as well as supporters said it would. "It was a reasonable measure. It is not hampered by state and federal law and it has not led to any 'reefer madness' claims."
Carr agrees -- to a point. He's happy that his misgivings about the initiative haven't proved true. Yet he remains uncomfortable with the low-priority mandate for police. "Pot remains illegal. Telling (police) to ignore the law is bad for democracy."
Ben Livingston, who describes himself as a regular pot smoker and runs an Internet service provider, thinks Carr has a point. He said I-75 cements into local law a tolerance that "already was there," but he also understands the delicate balancing act for police.
"I understand cops have to do what they have to do," he said. "I'm cool with that. ... (This) initiative just helped change the public mind-set, and encourage tolerance. That's important."
At least at a low-grade, personal level. In most instances and within certain jurisdictions, the drug war continues.
Major pot-smuggling cases still crowd local federal courts. The now-famous Blaine smuggling tunnel was closed by an aggressive state, federal and international investigation. John Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, has criticized the 57 percent of Seattle voters who approved the measure.
And in Denver, a recently approved measure to eliminate small-quantity pot penalties might have increased tension between the factions. There, the ballot measure eliminated municipal penalties for people over 21 arrested for possession of a small quantity of marijuana.
Because people there are not charged under city ordinance but under state law, law enforcement officials have said the initiative won't affect the annual pot bust rate of roughly 1,500 to 2,000 cases a year.
"From what I've heard from our law enforcement agencies, it is going to be status quo," said Denver City Attorney David Broadwell. "The Denver City Council didn't like the initiative but there isn't anything you can do about it.
"I think, frankly, people were surprised that it passed."
In Seattle, officials say the city might have saved around $6,000 in public defense fees last year, given the drop in pot cases. But, they add, that figure might be a net wash because of slightly increased staff costs associated with the oversight commission.
More interesting, but statistically harder to pin down, are indications that fewer people are smoking pot since the measure's passage. Reports from emergency rooms and a survey of public schools between 2002 and 2004 show a slight decline in marijuana use -- but a link between the two is impossible to establish.
Mike McDonald, a Seattle resident who voted for the initiative, said he thinks the measure did change Seattle for the better. A couple of weeks ago, he said, a buddy was smoking a joint in his car near the Pike Place Market when two cops walked up.
"They told him to put it out and move along. I don't think that would have happened before."