Hazy future for 'lowest priority' marijuana initiative

Seattle voters next month will consider making marijuana possession the lowest law-enforcement priority, a ballot question that stops short of calling for decriminalization but nonetheless is drawing interest — from as far away as the White House — for the groundwork it could lay for new attitudes toward pot.

Local law-enforcement officials call the initiative on the Sept. 16 primary ballot vague, potentially confusing and unlikely to change what they do on the street. Arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use, says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is not a priority now.

Proponents of Initiative 75 say if nothing would change, police and prosecutors have nothing to worry about. And they argue voters should be able to advise law-enforcement officials on which crimes they see as important.

Their strategy, in this local jab at national drug policy, is to appeal not only to Seattle's liberal leanings but to taxpayers' concerns.

"Given the limited resources, let's focus on public safety and let's not focus on pot smokers, at least not as a criminal matter," said Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project and an adviser to the I-75 campaign.

In Seattle, home to one of the nation's most popular Hempfests, where a 1998 initiative on medical marijuana passed with 70 percent of the vote, and where, on any given weekend, the smell of marijuana occasionally mingles with the shoppers and tourists near Westlake Park, I-75 is seen as having a good chance of passing — even if neither side is sure what the impact would be.

The initiative campaign, known as the Sensible Seattle Coalition, is headed by community activist Matt Fox and Hempfest organizer Dominic Holden. It has drawn support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which helped to draft the initiative, the King County Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Seattle, City Council members Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, County Council member Larry Gossett, State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and national drug-policy reform groups that have contributed more than half of the $143,000 reported raised through last Wednesday.

'The first chink in the armor'

No citizens group has organized to oppose the measure; anti-I-75 talk is being led by Kerlikowske, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr.

White House drug czar John Walters is stepping into the debate as well, planning a visit to Seattle on Sept. 10. A deputy in his Office of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Andrea Barthwell, spoke against I-75 during a visit a week ago.

She called I-75 an example of efforts around the country to "undermine the culture of disapproval" at a time when society ought to be sharpening its opposition to drug use. Marijuana use, in particular, has become a focus of White House efforts.

By requiring that police and the City Attorney's Office make cases involving adult marijuana possession "the City's lowest law-enforcement priority," the wording of I-75 may not offer specifics, said Barthwell, deputy director for demand reduction. But "it's a way in which they play with the marijuana laws. The first chink in the armor," she said.

Mayor declines comment

Even as national interest in I-75 intensifies and many local officials take sides, Mayor Greg Nickels is declining comment.

Said spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel, "That will be his decision when he reaches the voting booth."

About a dozen states have decriminalized possession of marijuana in small amounts thought to be for personal use. That usually means punishment with a fine, much like a traffic ticket.

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, such as for cancer and AIDS patients, also has won approval in several states, though subsequent court rulings have brought confusion, including in Washington state.

After election victories in several states, advocates of relaxing drug laws experienced some setbacks in 2002. Some say visits by Walters close to election day played a role.

In Nevada, critics, including some state officials, said the drug czar's barnstorming amounted to campaign work, and he should have filed a campaign-spending report. The drug-policy office countered that speaking out against drug use, much as Walters plans in Seattle, goes to the heart of his job and no campaign filings are necessary.

'Misleading,' says Kerlikowske

In Washington state, possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Kerlikowske said the number of cases his department handles has declined, down from 600 cases in 1998 to 418 cases in 2001.

Many of those possession charges come on top of other charges, the chief said. For example, someone is arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and a bag of marijuana is found in the car, or someone is picked up for shoplifting and a joint is found in the person's pocket. Officers aren't now bringing in everyone they see smoking a joint, he said.

"It's particularly misleading," Kerlikowske said, for I-75 backers to suggest that if the measure passes, the department could devote a lot more time to fighting violent crime. Pursuit of simple possession cases, he said, is low on the list now.

He also thinks having residents advise police on which crimes they should consider least important sets a bad precedent.

About 100 to 150 of those police-department cases are prosecuted by the City Attorney's Office, Carr said.

Like Kerlikowske, Carr insists relatively little money and staff time is spent on possession cases, noting his office's workload of 16,000 criminal cases.

Beyond that, he said, the "lowest priority" wording in I-75 would cause confusion in the courtroom.

Defense lawyers might argue that a charge of marijuana possession in and of itself runs counter to the ballot question. As for how the prosecution or defense might show that a charge amounted to a low or high priority, Carr said he doesn't know.

He also worries about an increase in cases.

People may misunderstand the initiative, believe marijuana is being decriminalized in Seattle and "have a false sense of security," Carr said. "My concern (is) people will flaunt it."

It's about choice, says backer

Holden rejects the assertion that I-75 might encourage marijuana use. He also said the measure has a built-in way to study any such trends with its call for an 11-member panel to assess I-75's effects. Its report would go to the City Council.

Holden, 26, is the person most identified with I-75. He waits tables to pay the bills, he says, and along with running Hempfest, he founded the Washington chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Surprisingly, perhaps, Holden says he doesn't smoke marijuana. He used to, but "I don't like the way it makes me feel."

He supports personal choice. Pot is no longer for him, but if people use it responsibly and don't drive, for instance, and keep it away from kids, Holden doesn't see why it should be treated differently from alcohol or tobacco.

Growing up in the Central Area, he said he witnessed an ineffective, violent, racially biased "war on drugs."

In pursuing the initiative, he teamed with the local ACLU, which has been studying drug-policy reform, and the King County Bar Association, which is leading a group of lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, scholars and others in an unusual effort to shift society's thinking on drug use — away from criminal sanctions and toward education and treatment.

In 2002, the bar association worked with the Legislature to enact drug-sentencing laws that give courts more discretion to order treatment instead of incarceration.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that supports decriminalization, has donated $17,500 to I-75 and helped direct a $40,000 donation to the campaign from Peter Lewis, head of The Progressive Corp., an auto-insurance group based in Ohio.

Lewis, who gives to a number of causes, including $60 million toward a new science library at Princeton University, has been donating to marijuana campaigns for years.

The money, said I-75 campaign consultant Blair Butterworth, will allow a direct-mail campaign after Labor Day.

While I-75 proponents and the campaign literature emphasize shifting limited resources toward fighting more serious crime, the vote may come down to basic opinions about marijuana and whether Seattleites care about their neighbor using pot.

"I don't think they do," Holden said. "People care whether people are hurting anyone else. But if people are responsible and in their own homes? I think most people are going to say, 'I can live with that.' "

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com