When Seattle cops cracked down on May Day protests last week, they formed phalanxes and blasted the crowd with pepper spray. But when demonstrators arrive downtown this Saturday—for a protest with its own civil disobedience—the city's top cop won't be an adversary. He'll be the keynote speaker.
The annual Cannabis Freedom March will feature interim Seattle police chief Jim Pugel. Having the leader of a major US city police department speak at a marijuana march is obviously of historic significance, and it demonstrates that after years of marijuana-law protests and organizing, including a legalization initiative that passed last year, the political movement has co-opted officials once seen as opponents.
"This is a public outreach opportunity," says SPD spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, who is also speaking at the pot rally. "Our department has been on the leading edge of public education and awareness surrounding Initiative 502. For us to be invited to the Cannabis Freedom March is fitting and not really surprising."
Had I really called my local police department?
"We serve the people and we support the law," Whitcomb states matter-of-factly. "We were honored to be invited."
Still, in other parts of the country, active-duty police rarely criticize the drug war. Neill Franklin of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition tells me the group has fewer than six active-duty members who speak publicly. "There is a perception among active law enforcement that they will be ostracized, passed over for promotion, or disciplined for speaking out on this topic," Franklin says. In years past, several law-enforcement employees have faced retribution for expressing support of legalization.
Even though using marijuana in public view is technically an infraction these days, and some pot smoking seems inevitable at the march, cannabis consumer outreach is simply part of the police department's job now. "It's not a surprise," says Sergeant Whitcomb. "I think it's clearly a sign of the times."
On Sat May 11, the Cannabis Freedom March gathers from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Volunteer Park then snakes down Broadway toward Westlake Park for a rally from 2 to 6 p.m. Interim police chief Jim Pugel, city attorney Pete Holmes, and liquor board chair Sharon Foster are expected to speak between 2 and 3 p.m.