Check out this strange e-mail exchange I had with Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr and his special assistant, Ruth Bowman, while I was working on this story about how Seattle is at the leading edge of this country's drug law reform movement.

Carr’s claims about marijuana case filings were originally only a smallish part of my story, but the exchange with Carr’s office is so bizarre and newsworthy—involving a back-and-forth over fishy numbers, a front-page Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from November, and information fed to a P-I reporter by Carr that Carr himself now admits was false—that they deserve their own web real-estate.

Here's the back story: On November 23, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a front-page article by Mike Lewis that looked at the fallout from Initiative 75, which all but decriminalized adult marijuana possession in Seattle. Voters approved I-75 by a large margin in 2003, and two years later the P-I story found few negative impacts from the measure's requirement that marijuana busts become Seattle's lowest law enforcement priority.

But the story also included quotes from Carr saying that while the negative effects from I-75 that he predicted had not actually materialized, I-75 also had not had the positive effect pot activists were claiming. Marijuana busts were low in number before the law took effect, Carr said, and remained similarly low in number afterward. "I'd say it's had little to no effect," he told Lewis. As proof of this assertion, Carr told Lewis that there had been only 74 marijuana filings by his office in 2002. In 2004, the year after I-75 took effect, there were 59 filings, Carr said. That's not much of a drop—or, at least, it wouldn't be, if it were true.

But you'll notice that the 74 number has disappeared from the web version of the P-I's story.

That's because it's not true. There were actually 160 marijuana filings by Carr's office in 2002, which creates a 63 percent drop in filings between 2002 and 2004. With numbers like that, it's hard to argue there's been "no effect" from I-75.

The P-I hasn't corrected the record yet, but I'm told it will do so shortly, probably with a story in tomorrow's paper. Good reporters like Lewis don't like to become conduits for false information.

Meanwhile, it took quite a bit of effort for me to get Carr to admit his mistake. On Monday, when I contacted his special assistant, Ruth Bowman, about the discrepancy, she at first told me that the error in the P-I article resulted from Mike Lewis misquoting Carr. So I called up Lewis and told him about the claim.

Lewis said that was bullshit, and that he had notes to prove Carr had given him the 74 figure. He also said that he had called Carr shortly after his I-75 article came out because pot activist Dominic Holden had complained that Carr's 74 number in the P-I article seemed fishy. At that time, Carr told Lewis he stood by the 74 number. And I now know that Lewis called Carr again on Monday, after I told Lewis that Carr's office was claiming Lewis was a misquoter. In that conversation, Lewis asked Carr again about the 74 number, and for the second time in two weeks, Carr stood by his number.

Then, shortly thereafter, Carr's office changed its story. Bowman took back her previous statement, telling me Carr had not been misquoted by Lewis. She promised that support for the 74 figure would be coming soon, but a few minutes later I received this e-mail, the first of several that would ultimately lead to Carr admitting his 74 figure was wrong. This first e-mail was from Bowman, and contained no text, just the subject line "Marijuana Data"—and an attachment.

From: Ruth Bowman

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 14:53:25 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Subject: Marijuana data

This was the attached data. You'll notice that it's data from 2005, not 2002, the year in question. So I wrote back:

From: Eli Sanders

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 15:11:34 -0800

To: Ruth Bowman

Subject: Re: Marijuana data

Ruth,

If this is intended to support Tom’s number of 74 marijuana cases for 2002, it appears to be the wrong document. This document you just sent me is case filings for 2005.

Can you please send me data supporting Tom’s claim of 74 cases in 2002? The Marijuana Policy Review Panel has a spreadsheet that it says is from your office, showing 161 marijuana cases in 2002. I’m trying to get to the bottom of this ASAP, as my deadline is fast approaching.

Thanks,

Eli

To which Ruth replied:

From: Ruth Bowman

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 15:03:08 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Subject: Re: Marijuana data

Sorry, I will try and get that 2002 data.

I waited. A few minutes later I received an e-mail from Ruth with no comment and this PDF file attached. Notice the subject of the e-mail: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis.

From: Ruth Bowman

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 15:18:58 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Subject: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

The PDF file directly contradicts Carr's 74 figure, saying the number of filings in 2002 was 160. I thought that was strange, especially coming with no additional comment. What was also strange was that Bowman was claiming, in the subject line, that Carr had given this data to Lewis. I wondered: When? And I now know that Carr's office only gave this data to Lewis on Monday, at the same time it was given to me. I wrote back:

From: Eli Sanders

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 15:43:12 -0800

To: Ruth Bowman

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

Ruth,

This PDF file does not support Tom Carr’s claim that there were only 74 marijuana case filings in 2002.

Rather, it supports Dominic Holden’s claim that there were closer to 160 marijuana cases filed in 2002. (Dominic’s spreadsheet, which he claims is from your office, says there were 161 marijuana cases in 2002. This PDF you just sent me says there were 160 such cases. Either way, that’s more than double the 74 number that Carr gave to the P-I two weeks ago.)

Does Tom Carr still stand by his statement to the P-I that there were only 74 marijuana cases in 2002?

Eli

Ruth replies, and cc's Carr:

From: Ruth Bowman

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 15:38:14 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Cc: Thomas Carr

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

Eli,

I will pass this on to Tom and see where the numbers got jumbled.

Ruth

I reply to both of them:

From: Eli Sanders

Date: Mon, 05 Dec 2005 16:15:49 -0800

To: Ruth Bowman

Cc: Thomas Carr

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

I look forward to hearing from you or Tom about how the numbers got jumbled.

In the meantime, just to be clear: I am interpreting the PDF file you sent me today, and your statement that the numbers “got jumbled,” as confirmation that the 74 figure Tom gave to the P-I in November was in fact incorrect — and that the actual figure for marijuana case filings in 2002 is closer to 160.

Please tell me if you think that’s not an accurate interpretation of what’s happened here.

Eli

Then I wait. This morning, I get this e-mail from Ruth:

From: Ruth Bowman

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2005 08:33:39 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

Yes, you are correct Eli. The spreadsheet numbers that Tom gave Mike, which I passed on to you are the correct numbers. As to how the numbers got jumbled, you'll have to wait for Tom's response.

Ruth

And then I get this e-mail from Tom Carr:

From: Thomas Carr

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2005 09:51:07 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Cc: mike.lewis@seattlepi.com

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

Eli,

Thanks for your e-mails. I actually have a lot to do. When I spoke with Mike, I was reading from the reports that we do. I probably was probably reading from the wrong report. If I did, I am sorry. I sent you both my spreadsheet yesterday. I have not focused on this, because it does not matter. Whether the number is 74 or 160 the difference is not statistically significant when you are talking about a population of 600,000 and 20,000 police reports received every year. If you want to go ahead and suggest that the marijuana initiative made a difference, you will be mistaken. It made no difference whatsoever.

Tom

I've heard this argument from Carr before. It's bogus in that it conflates marijuana filing numbers with numbers for all other filings. I respond this way:

From: Eli Sanders

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2005 10:29:40 -0800

To: Thomas Carr

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

Tom,

Thanks for the explanation.

The numbers are perhaps not statistically significant if you are talking about the impact I-75 had on the total number of police reports generated each year for all crimes in Seattle. But it doesn't seem to make any sense to measure the impact that way.

I-75 wasn't trying to cut down on the filings for murder, robbery, or any of the other crimes that make up the bulk of your 20,000 filings every year. It was trying to cut down on the number of filings related to marijuana possession.

And when you compare apples to apples — or marijuana filings to marijuana filings - the numbers do become statistically significant. A drop from 160 filings in 2002 to 59 filings in 2004 is a 63 percent drop. That seems pretty significant to me.

Eli

Carr replies:

From: Thomas Carr

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2005 10:30:27 -0800

To: eli@thestranger.com

Subject: Re: Marijuana data that Tom gave Mike Lewis

You can of course believe what you want. My point is that the proponents of the initiative claimed that they were going to have the police and the prosecutors work on more important things and save a great deal of money. The fact is that 160 cases for a population of 600,000 people is an incredibly small number. Whatever the drop is, it is statistically insignificant, because we have never prosecuted any significant percentage of the pot smokers in Seattle. That did not change.

So, where does all this leave us? The P-I was wrong, Carr was wrong, Dominic Holden was right, and I-75 obviously led to a significant decrease in marijuana filings by Carr's office. But the bigger question, to me, is whether Carr intentionally misled the P-I as part of an effort to minimize I-75's impact. I don't know the answer to that question, yet.