Pot Paradox

Seattle Is at the Vanguard of Legalizing Pot, So Why Are arrest levels Worse Than Ever?

Pot Paradox
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These Are the Worst of Times

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.

These Are the Best of Times

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." recommended

This article has been corrected to include information about marijuana arrests associated with warrants.


Comments (42) RSS

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More, I Say! 1
ZOMG I am about to die. That was me in Freeway Park, direct quote from my complaint interview with the SPD accountability office. RIP, my favourite pipe.
Posted by More, I Say! on August 18, 2010 at 12:59 PM · Report this
Sir Vic 2
What you are noticing is the unfettered contempt the SPD has for anyone on the other side of the blue line. They don't care how the people vote, it's THEIR city, and they will enforce the laws as they choose.

The SPD just can't understand how decades of organized racial profiling has completely delegitimized them in the eyes of the citizenry. We know they aren't here to "protect" anyone other than themselves. They just investigate & cover up.
Posted by Sir Vic on August 18, 2010 at 2:13 PM · Report this
I'm 85 Years Old 3
hey! hey!

ho! ho!

John Diaz needs to realize that the city of Seattle wants to make marajuana enforcement the lowest priority and even voted on it and his counterproductive attitude has got to go!
Posted by I'm 85 Years Old on August 18, 2010 at 2:51 PM · Report this
I think maybe people should remember that it is still illegal. So if your caught smoking you should be busted. Just because its on the agenda doesnt make you better than the law.
Posted by CASPER on August 18, 2010 at 2:58 PM · Report this
NaFun 5
So Caspar @4, you'll be collecting signatures for the next decrim initiative, yes? You've given a couple hundred dollars to Sensible Washington, are speaking on the topic at HempFest, regularly write your state and federal legislators, and are a regular contributor to the Marijuana Policy Project, right?
Posted by NaFun http://www.dancesafe.org on August 18, 2010 at 3:48 PM · Report this
Waste of time, waste of paper (the reports, not the joints), waste of bureaucracy, waste of money. Pathetic that we continue to spend any time on this at all. How about cracking down on petty theft instead? Or public urination? Both of those will do more to make Seattle safe and sane than taking @1's favorite pipe.

And sorry for you loss, 1.
Posted by nullbull on August 18, 2010 at 3:55 PM · Report this
Wait...what? Let's say you're sitting in a parked car, drinking Jim Beam. Cop rolls up. Dude's gonna ask if you're about to drive drunk, and he's gonna cite you for open container -- of course he is, and he probably should. I mean...tha' fuck you gonna drive after drinking that?

With pot it's the same deal -- except you've got the added problem that it's still technically illegal to even possess. Cops should make this a low priority -- but you've gotta help them out by not making it blatant. If you wouldn't be sitting in a public park drinking a fifth, don't sit there smoking a bowl...it's really the same principle.

Some day we'll pass laws that clarify these things -- that say you can smoke pot, but perhaps not in public (like with open container laws). But until then, don't force the cop to make that kind of judgment call -- don't make it hard for him to ignore you.

(But that thing with the medics was straight-up shitty.)
Posted by AnotherBob on August 18, 2010 at 8:28 PM · Report this
Just to play devils advocate for a minute...Could it be that the increase in pot arrests are a result of more poeple smoking pot more openly since the "lowest enforcement" initiative passed? Still is wrong for those people to be prosecuted for it at all, IMO, but some people seem to think it was going to be like Amsterdam once that initiative passed.
Posted by rastabilly on August 18, 2010 at 10:41 PM · Report this
More, I Say! 9
It's funny...honestly we felt pretty dumb after we got caught, though it wasn't the bust-age that surprised us, it was the unbridled rage pouring out the mouth of the arresting officer, along the lines of "the fucking mayor and his fucking policies....make people think this kind of shit is legal....you think this is normal? Normal people do this?" as well as "DO YOU HAVE A WEAPON" x 4. Did I mention my associate and I are two business-casual clad ladies, and this cop probably outweighed us combined? Seriously, ok, dumb, I got busted for smoking pot in the least sneaky place ever, but with the way this guy acted, we were selling crack to kids.
Posted by More, I Say! on August 19, 2010 at 11:18 AM · Report this
Diesel 10
While I don't smoke pot (I found out years ago that alcohol has pretty much the same effect on me as marijuana), I have to agree that this is a bit much on the part of the SPD. The citizenry voted to make it the lowest priority - so act the part.

I'm sure that Seattle police have MUCH more important things to do than worry about whether or not a seizing passenger in a car or two business-casual clad ladies are enjoying a bit of pot. It's not like they're shooting up in public, robbing banks or pillaging Pike Place Market. From what little interaction I'd had with the SPD, it was obvious to me a few years ago that they don't give a damn anymore - and I'm sure it's only gotten worse in the last couple years.

@9, as a side note and on a completely different tangent... If that's you in the photo, wow! Sexy!
Posted by Diesel on August 19, 2010 at 2:30 PM · Report this
Dominic - you are a Seattle treasure. Great article as always.

John Diaz - not so much.
Posted by john diaz - please retire on August 19, 2010 at 2:46 PM · Report this
So where was the Stranger when I-1068 was falling short of signatures to get on the November ballot? Why wasn't there a count on every cover showing how many more signatures were needed? All of this could have been solved if the Stranger got off it's high ass and promoted the initiative like they should have. But no, you couldn't help the cause - only complain about it.
Posted by montex on August 19, 2010 at 3:53 PM · Report this
More, I Say! 13
@10 Real me! Thanks!
Posted by More, I Say! on August 19, 2010 at 4:25 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 14
Remember, if you see a cop trying to find MJ, point out the litter in the street, the drunk in the street, and the tagger nearby.

Those are all WAY more important.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on August 19, 2010 at 4:41 PM · Report this
Diesel 15
More, I Say! - It's lovely women like yourself who make me miss the hell out of Seattle. :)

@14 - Damned straight!
Posted by Diesel on August 19, 2010 at 4:47 PM · Report this
The intellectual dishonesty of the left rears its ugly head again... The article portrays "conservatives" as being against legalization. Richard Cowan was a REPUBLICAN for craps sake. (director of NORML for 3 years) In conservative polls I have seen legalization runs about 78%. The left however does not want to legalize because of the uholy marriage between governments and drug and alcohol "treatment" centers. Let' face it ... McGinn is a liberal. He hired Diaz. PERIOD. This is a democrat baby. Own it. If you cannot be honest with your readers, honestly asked yourself "if WA state has always (as it is now) been run by liberal democrats, WHY THEN OH WHY... isn't it LEGAL? hmmmmm Vote PERSONAL FREEDOM (cept in the killin of a baby) VOTE GOP or at LEAST LP you brainwashed beanie babies!
Posted by Conservative-Pothead on August 19, 2010 at 5:05 PM · Report this
lol @ diesel you have to wade through a LOT of BREMALOWS and hairy armpits to find a woman like that in Seattle :0 Quite frankly I think there is a conspiracy among seattle women to look as ugly as they can, so as to force men here to drop their standards. ;)

Of course it's not working hence the high number of weekend lesbians here.

Right on lets hear it for Seattle women who STILL resemble women!!
Beauty, is sometimes a beautiful thing! w0000t!
Posted by Alice in Pains on August 19, 2010 at 5:12 PM · Report this
Diesel 18
@17 - I dunno. I was in Seattle for 6 1/2 years and saw quite a few women on par with Ms. More, I Say! Granted, yes, there are a lot of... shall we say, unappealing women. But it's a matter of knowing where to look. I think it's a case of desensitivity... you get used to seeing the hideously obese (and this is a general statement, not pointed at either gender), the excessively hirsute, and many others who take no interest in personal hygiene or appearance and so you don't typically notice the truly beautiful.

Hell... Among my circle of friends in Seattle, easily 50% of my female friends could be considered the same "caliber" as Ms. More, I Say!

Back on the topic of legalization/decriminalization, however... The problem with legalizing marijuana (or, for that matter, heavier drugs) is that most people aren't willing to look past the "negatives". There are negatives and positives aplenty... it's just a matter of whether people are willing to give up their cushy, comfy chair of "status quo" for a ride down the road to change.

One of the biggest arguments I have ever heard is that there would be an immense spike in people using marijuana. The only "spike" would be the more noticeable usage, due to legality of the substance. Things would balance out quickly... Employers would institute new policies, requiring people to choose between their vice and their job - the same, really, as with alcohol. Most, if not all, employers don't care if you go home and down a few brews (or get yourself pleasantly plastered.) However, when it comes to showing up to work drunk... Chances are, you're out of a job. The same would happen with pot. Thankfully, the Puritan views are slowly going away - though, once I discovered Seattle's past history, I was honestly surprised that Seattle isn't a bit "looser" than it is.
Posted by Diesel on August 19, 2010 at 6:02 PM · Report this
More, wha was the officers names?
Posted by Joe Blow23 on August 19, 2010 at 7:42 PM · Report this
Tingleyfeeln 20
@18, I don't think it is an issue of people's willingness to look past the negatives, it is peoples unwillingness to see that the negatives are mostly bullshit. "What about the children" my ass. Any increase in useage will come from adults old enough to buy it under a legalisation system. It will actually become more difficult for minors to acquire MJ if it is legalized.
It is time for McGuinn to put some strings on the SPD budget. This article also mentions that the police have been pleading for more money. Tough, why doesn't the SPD cut its vice squad funding, stop paying cops to get lap dances and massages where they supposedly say no to happy endings. Why doesn't the SPD quit submitting these pot cases for prosecution when they know the prosecutor wont prosecute. Fucking dumbasses! Why doesn't the SPD quit harrassing jaywalkers who are not interfering with others right of way?
I'm no fan of accountants, but maybe we should get an accountant to head the SPD instead of a fucking mush brain person who trumps out the tired "we are a nation of laws" line.
Posted by Tingleyfeeln on August 19, 2010 at 8:04 PM · Report this
Dominic: Please do not equate a written police report documenting an encounter with someone who possessed marijuana (which is still technically illegal to possess), which is automatically referred to the City Attorney for review (and within his discretion to decline to prosecute) with an arrest. Hundreds of reports are written every day (for theft, assault, driving offenses, and others) which are handled the same way: referred automatically to the City Attorney for review. None are actual, physical arrests. Your use of the term "arrest" is misleading.
Posted by correctherecord on August 19, 2010 at 8:21 PM · Report this
Diesel 22
Tingley... You're right on the "peoples unwillingness to see that the negatives are mostly bullshit", though I think that both sides are equally feasible. Just depends on the person you're talking about. And you're quite right... MJ will become like tobacco. Grown by companies, packaged (probably similarly - either by the pack or loose, like rolling tobacco) and sold - the only real difference I can think of is that MJ might be sold via a locked display, but I don't know.
Posted by Diesel on August 19, 2010 at 8:52 PM · Report this
On the "vanguard of legalizing pot"? Someone is living in a fantasy world or *actually* high when they came up with that one. It is never going to happen. I wish someone would arrest the a-holes who smoke pot in parks, on the streets, or publicly in general. I could give a shit if people want to smoke that crap at home.
Posted by thunderchaps on August 19, 2010 at 9:05 PM · Report this
People who smoke pot in public are usually annoying assholes. I like the idea of assholes being harassed by cops.
Posted by Joe Glibmoron on August 19, 2010 at 9:14 PM · Report this
One more thing: It's my theory that the increasing number of police reports documenting marijuana possession is due to the fact that more people are using it out in the open. The word has spread that it's SPD's lowest priority, and the City Attorney has said he will not file marijuana possession charges, making it de facto (though not de jure) legal in the City of Seattle.
Posted by correctherecord on August 19, 2010 at 10:10 PM · Report this
WAIT - since when did people "VOTERS" "MAKE" the call as to the lowest priority of charges? Isn't that the Mayor's and/or Chief of Police in Seattle (or any other city area) there JOBs and/or idea to either make or NOT Make POT the lowest priority as to the amount a person is in possession? Dom - I mean I agree they should not be filling up the jails for such a minor incident. Maybe it is keeping them employed and or contributing to there lack of donations because of there recent popularity or lack of?
Posted by buttfuzz on August 19, 2010 at 10:17 PM · Report this
Hey Dominic WAIT - since when did people "VOTERS" "MAKE" the call as to the lowest priority of charges? Isn't that the Mayor's and/or Chief of Police in Seattle (or any other city area) there JOBs and/or idea to either make or NOT Make POT the lowest priority as to the amount a person is in possession? Dom - I mean I agree they should not be filling up the jails for such a minor incident. Maybe it is keeping them employed and or contributing to the lack of donations they receive because of there recent popularity or lack of?
Posted by buttfuzz on August 19, 2010 at 10:24 PM · Report this
seandr 28
The "lowest priority" initiative is utterly fucking useless.
Posted by seandr on August 19, 2010 at 10:57 PM · Report this
DeaconBlues 29
You know, I read this article and thought to myself, "Maybe all these extra pot arrests are happening because people thought 'lowest priority' meant 'Smoke weed in public errrryday'."
Posted by DeaconBlues http://radzillas.blogspot.com/ on August 20, 2010 at 1:38 AM · Report this
breakdown 30
What I don't understand is why the handful of cops who can't help screaming at people who are minding their own business--regardless of whether they have an open container or a joint in public, or they're just not crossing the street at the corner--are able to keep their jobs.
Posted by breakdown on August 20, 2010 at 8:27 AM · Report this
hans millionaire 31
SEATTLE should open up shops like in Amsterdam, with or more 10 flavors of green and 10 flavors of h@sh, with different $/per grm.

People there don't really blaze in public that much, mostly just in shops, but some smoke tobacco mixed into "spliffs" as they ride commuter bikes around town... fun place
Posted by hans millionaire on August 20, 2010 at 8:49 AM · Report this
I love the derps from 4chan that come over here from /b/ and try and troll as conservatards.
Posted by Hurp McDurp on August 20, 2010 at 9:50 AM · Report this
prompt 33
And here I thought that the cops were just busy looking for jaywalkers. You know, if the cops would focus more on real crime, maybe there wouldn't be so many carprowls and burglaries where I live.
Posted by prompt on August 20, 2010 at 10:33 AM · Report this
Dominic! Where did the data come from? Interested in doing some more analysis. Gracias!
Posted by pvtpenguin on August 20, 2010 at 12:27 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 35
seandr @ 28) You're wrong when you say, "The 'lowest priority' initiative is utterly fucking useless."

The reason Holmes stopped all the pot prosecutions, he says, is because of the initiative--that's a pretty remarkable impact. Second, the reason these data are tracked is thanks to reporting criteria established by an oversight panel created by the measure. Those reports--that readily accessible information published biannually--has helped keep marijuana enforcement on the burners of local politics.
Posted by Dominic Holden on August 20, 2010 at 1:46 PM · Report this
Before we take too much pride in Hempfest, I've heard they actually toss bud out to the crowds at Vancouver's Cannabis Day festival.
Posted by madcap on August 20, 2010 at 6:56 PM · Report this
Where has the Seattle City Attorney gone with his commitment to not prosecute marijuana possession anymore?

Posted by Curtis on August 20, 2010 at 6:56 PM · Report this
@12: You must have missed the 12,000 copies of the Stranger that went out with petitions for 1068.
Posted by maddogm13 on August 20, 2010 at 11:19 PM · Report this
More, I Say! 39
this thread is making me blush!!!

...and @19 his name was Poblocki.
Posted by More, I Say! on August 21, 2010 at 7:14 PM · Report this
1.) Having marijuana in your pocket as you drive is very different from having an open container in your lap or drinks-cup.
2.) Some men really don't mind some armpit and other hair---an hairy chest would in fact turn me off, but I still cleave to the old hippie/Frankfurter_schule idea that convincing people that their bodies-as-given are fundamentally _wrong_ in some ways is a GREAT method of control and a great spur to unnecessary consumption.
3.) Perhaps police are doing all this as a form of whinging protest, one that unfortunately inconveniences many guiltless folk, about which these same police don't care or positively enjoy. Many of a following-authoritarian cast-of-mind will get a warm, safe, feeling from obeying orders from the Right People (their superiors), and loathe and bristle at taking orders from the Wrong People (hippies, students, liberals, darkies, and other Jews).
4.) I don't know if this is true here, but I've lived in places where the best drugs were the ones that came packaged in 'evidence' envelopes.
5.) Finally, and as always, stereotypical pot-heads tend ON AVERAGE to be less likely to pull a gun or knife, resist, and the like, and especially as compared to J. Random Screaming Drunk...so, given a choice, who are YOU going to harass?
Posted by Gerald Fnord on August 23, 2010 at 8:40 AM · Report this

"ON AVERAGE" holds for mean, median, and mode in this case.

"mind some armpit" --> "mind women's having some armpit"

Reference to teabagger angst at a Darkie's being in charge forgot. Should have added,m "And many with a reflexive 'rebel' pose get a warm, safe, feeling from breaking the rules,' for fairness-in-mocking's sake.

"who are YOU going to harass"-->"whom would YOU to harass?"

Caffeine + Native stupidity.....
Posted by Gerald Fnord on August 23, 2010 at 9:54 AM · Report this
Diesel 42
I don't think it's the thread making you blush, More, I Say! :P
Posted by Diesel on August 26, 2010 at 8:10 AM · Report this

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