Jeffrey Steinborn, Seattle's leading pot-defense attorney, was sitting at his desk overlooking Elliott Bay in early March when a client in his mid-30s walked into the office. The man had recently been convicted of possessing pot for personal use. "He went up to this place north of Seattle where they have this shelter full of abused puppies they are trying to get rid of," Steinborn says. "They wouldn't give him a puppy. They turned him down for a pot conviction."
Translation: Pot smoking is so wicked, according to current law, that the state even punishes puppies when humans do it.
The real ramifications of pot laws, of course, extend beyond small dogs. In 2007, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, officers arrested 11,553 people in our state for misdemeanor pot possession (less than 40 grams). Those who get caught face up to 90 days in jail and a permanent criminal record. The court and jail costs amount to $16,008,360 of tax- payer money every year, a March report by the state legislature shows. And that doesn't include the public costs of police time or the private costs of lost jobs and money spent on private attorneys.
"A more dysfunctional allocation of our resources would be difficult to imagine," Steinborn says.
The state legislature just had its chance to fix this ass- backward approach to pot enforcement. It blew it. A bill to reclassify pot offenses, reducing the maximum penalty for misdemeanor pot possession from three months in jail to a $100 fine, died in the legislature in mid-March.
"Marijuana is a red flag to some legislators," explains Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), the prime sponsor of the senate version of the bill. Democratic lawmakers representing swing districts fear a backlash from conservative constituents, she says. For example, Senator James Hargrove (D-24) broke from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee by voting against the measure.
Clearly, our cowardly legislature will never decriminalize pot.
Which leaves option two: Run an initiative.
Other states have run outlandish pot initiatives before and failed. In Alaska, a measure that would have provided financial reparations to formerly incarcerated potheads went down in smoke and smoldered in the snow. In Nevada, the cash-flush Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has twice gambled on an initiative that would tax and regulate pot—but, of course, the house always wins and pot taxing and regulation lost.
But Washington's drug-policy-reform establishment—including the ACLU of Washington, state legislators, city council and county council people, and various organizations and people involved in previous drug-reform efforts—wouldn't run a stupid, unwinnable initiative in Washington. They could form a campaign that would run an initiative to decriminalize adult marijuana possession by popular vote.
Emphasis on popular: Opinion research conducted by the state ACLU in 2006 and 2008 found that Washington State voters overwhelmingly reject the idea that pot smokers should go to jail. When asked to pick between (a) completely legalizing pot, (b) making possession a noncriminal offense (like the bill that died this year), or (c) keeping it illegal, an average of 68 percent of voters said they supported legalization or decriminalization. Ahem—legislators?
More hope: Barack Obama is the president now. Under the Bush administration, former drug czar John Walters campaigned against every drug-reform initiative, including Initiative 75, which deprioritized marijuana enforcement in Seattle in 2003. In contrast, Obama's drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, didn't oppose I-75. "I think it would be highly unlikely that the Obama administration would make any effort to oppose a decriminalization initiative, because there's not really much of a conflict with federal law," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the country's leading drug- policy-reform think tank.
In other words, for the first time in nearly a decade, the most powerful lobby opposed to changing pot laws is dead.
"I think that Washington [State] has been on the forefront of a lot of good things," says MPP spokesman Bruce Mirken. "A lot of people are looking to Washington to continue to play that role." But will MPP sink its millions into the Evergreen State the way it has in Nevada? "I think it would be a combination of need for our involvement, a well thought out proposal, and us having the money to do it." He confirms that MPP continues to receive massive annual endowments from former Progressive Insurance head Peter Lewis, who has provided a significant chunk of the organization's funding for years.
On the ground here is the ACLU of Washington. The ACLU has run television infomercials with Rick Steves talking about pot laws, hosted forums on pot, and sponsored studies. Alison Holcomb, the group's drug-policy director, is open to an initiative but maintains hope the legislature could pass a bill in 2010. But public discussion on pot has come to a standstill: The legislature dropped the bill without getting anywhere close to passing it, television stations relegated the ACLU's infomercial to late-night slots, and the current discourse about pot is wallowing in the patchouli-stained ghetto of Hempfest. The issue, if it is to proceed, needs to demand attention in an urgent policy proposal that can't be ignored—an initiative.
The sorts of people and groups who worked on I-75 and Washington's medical-marijuana initiative (elected officials, the King County Bar Association, NORML, MPP) are all in a position to form a campaign later this year and run a winning decriminalization initiative in 2010.
Meanwhile, the resistance to decriminalization is weaker than ever. In 2008, MPP funded an initiative in Massachusetts similar to the bill that failed in our state legislature this year. Senator John Kerry, the governor, the attorney general, and law enforcement from around the state claimed that decriminalizing pot would promote drug use, assist drug dealers, and send the wrong message to children.
The tactic backfired. Polling two weeks before the vote showed the initiative leading by only 19 points, but—after the opposition ramped up its campaign—it passed a 30-point margin.
Washington possesses a stronger defense than Massachusetts against the inevitable fearmongering. In March, University of Washington professors Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert released a study, sponsored by the state ACLU, which found that despite escalating enforcement, pot prices didn't rise, use didn't drop, and availability didn't falter. "So all the things you would presume that strong enforcement would achieve, it does not," says Herbert. "It just costs us money." The findings decimate the arguments traditionally used to stop pot reform.
And when it comes to money, the lousy economy is an asset. Lawmakers and the public are looking for ways to save cash. "Things that were seen as politically impossible are now seen as being needed to be put on the table anyway," says Nadelmann. "It is an ideal time for an initiative, because people question why we are spending taxpayer dollars trying to enforce an unenforceable prohibition."