Seattle Is at the Vanguard of Legalizing Pot, So Why Are arrest levels Worse Than Ever?
If you thought pot legalization in Seattle had already arrived—think again. Despite voters making pot possession the lowest law-enforcement priority in 2003, Seattle police are arresting more people on low-level marijuana charges this year than any year in the last decade.
Between January 1 and June 30, Seattle police have arrested 172 people for marijuana possession, according to records obtained from the Seattle City Attorney's Office. While that's not a lot compared to, say, New York City, that's far more than double the rate of arrests at the midpoint of last year, when cops had arrested 62 people (there were 120 arrests all year in 2009). And that's more than triple the rate in 2004, the year after Initiative 75 passed, when police had arrested 47 people for pot possession by this point in the year.
More striking, the number of people arrested just for pot—as opposed to, for instance, a suspect being stopped for burglary and having pot on them—is astronomically higher now.
This year, 132 people have been referred to prosecutors with pot as the only criminal charge, according to records from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the city attorney's office. That is a fourfold increase in the number of pot-only cases (last year, only 28 of the 120 arrests were referred for prosecution with pot as the only charge).
This is a drastic shift toward busting people solely for pot.
It doesn't take much provocation for police to make an arrest, according to SPD records. In one case, according to SPD documents obtained by The Stranger in July, an officer spotted a car driving "erratically." When stopped, the driver told officers that the "passenger was having a seizure." Medics who arrived to treat the patient "located marijuana in his jeans pocket." Officers seized the marijuana as evidence and referred the man—the man who was having a seizure—to be prosecuted for misdemeanor pot possession.
In another case, officers responded to a 911 call that people were smoking pot in a parked car. Officers promptly responded, arresting four people and referring them for prosecution.
And in another case, two people were sitting in Freeway Park when officers approached. The suspects freely "admitted to smoking marijuana but were surprised that they had been stopped because it was supposed to be the lowest priority for police," SPD records say. Officers found the pair had a pipe with nothing more than "residue in it." The case was referred to prosecutors.
Assistant Chief Jim Pugel insists police are complying not only with the letter of the law, which isn't binding because state law takes precedent, but also with the spirit of the city law passed by voters. "I don't want the perception that we are looking for bud—we are not," he says. "In most cases, we are inadvertently coming across it."
But Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington, questions whether it's even worth the time and effort police are expending. "Even if police are stumbling across marijuana secondarily, it's still a waste of their time to process the paperwork for the marijuana offense," she says. "It's a waste of tax dollars to submit that marijuana for testing."
Pugel says, "The vast majority of people stopped for marijuana are engaging in suspicious, unusual, or criminal behavior." However, police seem to be actively pursuing very ordinary behavior for marijuana—not anything unusual or dangerous. After years of largely ignoring pot smoking at the Northwest Folklife festival, police officers changed their approach in 2010. They made 31 arrests at the event this year, referring all of those cases for prosecution, and none of them were combined with another charge, according to the city attorney's records.
So why the change?
Most notably, Seattle has a new police chief, John Diaz. "Marijuana is our lowest priority," Diaz told reporters at a press conference in June, "but we are not going to stop making arrests. We are a nation of laws. If voters want to legalize marijuana, that would be up to them and the legislature."
But Diaz—who was appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council this summer, but who has been the interim police chief ever since Gil Kerlikowske left the department in May 2009—has plenty of authority, too. "Certainly, Chief Diaz can remind the police force that Seattle residents don't wish for their officers to be spending time on marijuana law enforcement and that they have more pressing priorities for use of their public-safety dollars," Holcomb says.
Indeed, police have been pleading for more money in lean budget years, saying that they don't have the staffing resources to expand community policing and to crack down on street disorder in nighttime hot spots, and that they are too burdened to quickly respond to 911 calls. Stopping people for smoking a joint, filing it as evidence, pursuing testing on small bags of pot, filling out reports, and seeking prosecution for low-level pot crimes seem to pale as priorities when compared to the public-safety needs that SPD insists it doesn't have the resources to handle.
All those pot cases from this year that you just read about? None of them will be prosecuted.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, who took office in January, refuses to slap a misdemeanor conviction on any of those people. It was a campaign promise—a promise that helped him win the election with 64 percent of the vote—that he refuses to budge on. And he's no wild card at City Hall: The mayor wants to legalize marijuana outright.
That doesn't spare the people the humiliation of arrest, but it's an improvement that bodes well for the cultural shift toward legalization. (The police don't care: In another report, they write that officers saw people rolling a marijuana cigarette in Cal Anderson Park and they referred the case for prosecution "despite 'the city attorney's refusal to prosecute.'")
In fact, marijuana will probably be decriminalized in Washington State within the next decade. Consider the radical shifts afar and underfoot:
In Massachusetts, voters came out in 2008 to cream conservatives and pass a law that made possessing less than an ounce of pot punishable by a $100 fine instead of warranting an arrest and criminal conviction. In California this year, an initiative is on the ballot to eliminate penalties for possession completely (and then allow jurisdictions to tax and regulate it). A poll conducted in late July by Public Policy Polling shows the measure passing with 52 percent in favor and only 36 percent opposed. Nationally, an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll also in July showed 52 percent support for outright marijuana legalization.
On the back of this newspaper, there are about a dozen ads for pot. They promote clinics that allow sick people to connect with physicians who have some expertise in medical marijuana; the docs meet a patient and issue them authorization under state law to use and grow marijuana, and some services even offer a live pot plant. About a dozen states have gentle pot laws on the books and aboveboard businesses dispensing pot, and the Obama administration has largely turned a blind eye.
And this weekend in Seattle at Myrtle Edwards Park is Hempfest, which is—no contest—the biggest pot event on earth. Over 200,000 people are expected to blow through the gates.
By all accounts, eyes are on Washington State to decriminalize marijuana—polling numbers show support creeping up year by year.
So how do proponents reconcile the latest crackdown with a state standing on the threshold of major reform? "I see increased enforcement corresponding directly to progress," says Holcomb. "It shouldn't surprise us that opponents would state their case more forcefully through advocacy or enforcement on the ground level."
This article has been corrected to include information about marijuana arrests associated with warrants.