I asked every member of the Seattle City Council the same short question: "Do you support taxing, regulating, and legalizing pot?" By way of background, it's no surprise that City Attorney Pete Holmes, who stopped all misdemeanor pot prosecutions, supports legal pot. Or that Mayor McGinn, whose pro-pot stance made national news when he was running for office, is on board. When asked this week, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, "Of course. Prohibition has been a disaster." And the Seattle Times? They've gone bananas for legal weed (I interview Ryan Blethen in this week's paper).
Does everyone in Seattle want pot to be legal? How about the council members? Particularly, how about Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess—a former cop and barometer of relative conservatism on law-enforcement politics in Seattle—has he ever talked about his position? "Not really, but you caught me at a moment when I wanted to dump," he says. Here's Burgess, responding to the question at the top of the post, in an excellent email:
Yes, I do. Pete Holmes and John McKay have been working on me and I find their arguments quite persuasive. Pete had an opinion piece in The Seattle Times last week or the week before that was very rational and persuasive. The so-called "war on drugs" has not been successful. In fact, it's been quite negative and caused major problems for our country, especially the accompanying policy of mass incarceration that has had many, many unintended consequences within our communities of color and among those living with poverty.
Burgess continues after the jump.
The United States is the world's largest jailer. Is that something we should be proud of? I don't believe so. We incarcerate more people on a per capita basis that any other country in the world. In fact, no other country is even close to us. Think of your worst dictator, worst authoritarian regime; well, we imprison more of our people on a per capita basis than they do. We are off the charts in terms of the number of people we have in prison. Even those who hold differing views on how illegal drugs should be handled must acknowledge that our policy of mass incarceration is not worthy of us as Americans. The statistics of incarceration reveal a core weakness of our system of justice—we are unable to adequately deal with crime without throwing tons of people in prison.
I'm talking here about mass incarceration because this policy, first adopted in the mid 1970s, can be traced to the early years of the "war on drugs." I was a Seattle police officer when the trend started. We shifted from a policy of indeterminate judicial sentencing in favor of determinant sentencing. Why? Because of judicial abuses in sentencing when violent offenders were getting very light sentences, being released and then re-offending. But, another factor played a key role, too. The political need to "get tough on crime" and the Republican's strategy to win back the southern states. President Nixon milked this for all it's worth, big time. Sorry, I'm rambling here, but I feel very strongly about this. It's grown ever since to become one of our biggest policy problems; it has terribly damaging impact, an impact that will cost us dearly in years to come.
Here's the key problem. A criminal justice policy that is centered on high rates of imprisonment isn't sustainable (because of the HUGE costs), isn't fair or just, and produces what I referred to above as unintended consequences. Those consequences are tied directly to the stigma of being a convicted felon—lower chances of finding a meaningful and family-supporting job, lower chances of finding housing, lower chances of becoming an active participant in our democracy. Now, don't get me wrong, Dom. Some people belong in prison and some of them should never be released, but this category should be limited to violent offenders who not only commit vicious crimes but also tear apart the fabric of our cities and towns. To continue on our present course of mass incarceration only means we will continue to create a class of people who have great difficulty functioning in society and for whom we will pay the price in high prison costs, high recidivism rates, and high poverty rates. Mass incarceration sustains poverty, strengthens racism, and is anti-family for those directly affected. If the "war on drugs" were shifted to a more rational and precisely targeted effort we would be much better off because we would be dealing with those criminals who are actually causing harm to the community, we would save incarceration costs, and we would stop this needless and counter-productive policy that rips apart so many families and communities.
What about the other council members? They all said "yes"—except for Bruce Harrell, who never answered my question (and I've asked three times).