The text of I-75 says, "The measure would require the Seattle Police and the City Attorney to make cases involving marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law-enforcement priority."
Sounds cool, but realistically all marijuana reform is hampered by federal law, which trumps state and local ordinances. Marijuana, along with other drugs such as heroin and LSD, is classified as a "Schedule I" drug, meaning it has no approved medical use. According to Bob Hood, chief of the criminal division of the city attorney's office, Congress makes criminalization of Schedule I drugs a prerequisite of accepting federal money. So unless Washington state residents are willing to give up federal funds, they have to make pot illegal.
Federal law isn't the only roadblock. In 1989 the Washington State Legislature made it illegal for cities to enact different penalties than the state for drug possession. Seattle is barred from making pot possession a lighter offense. Therefore I-75's language amounts to a strong recommendation, but not a true legal change.
This is Holden's second stab at a marijuana initiative; a similarly written Initiative 73 was abandoned because it was too broadly written.
Campaign coordinator Matt Fox believes this version will pass legal muster. Fox said the initiative was drafted with the assistance of ACLU lawyers. Meanwhile, in 2000, California's Mendocino County passed a similar ordinance. Other California counties have also followed suit, including notorious marijuana-growing Humboldt County.
But in Mendocino, Humboldt, and elsewhere, the effects of such ordinances were only symbolic because of federal and state laws. Devine Strong, public information officer for the Humboldt sheriff's office, said he wasn't even aware of any marijuana ordinance.
The Sensible Seattle Coalition believes that Seattle police should focus on harder drugs, and on dealers, not users, of marijuana. Absent an actual law change, though, what will passage of I-75 actually do?
For starters, Fox says, "It'll send a message to [Attorney General] John Ashcroft." (If Ashcroft happens to notice what's going on in Seattle besides money transfers involving Somalis, that is.)
Holden, however, is optimistic that the initiative's passage would be more than a message. He thinks it will actually keep marijuana arrests down. The initiative would create an 11-member panel to monitor the ordinance's effects and report those effects to the Seattle City Council. Holden believes this is incentive to keep Seattle police from arresting people despite the fact that the initiative does not spell out any consequences for city non-compliance, nor prohibits arrests for marijuana possession.
Since the problem with lowering drug penalties begins at the state level, doesn't it make more sense for organizers to start with a statewide initiative?
"Maybe this is just a small step," says Ben Livingston, treasurer for the coalition. "I don't think we can do a statewide initiative now."