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Pot Arrests Higher For Blacks In City

Herb Fellow

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White Seattleites have enjoyed a disproportionately larger share of the reduction in misdemeanor marijuana charges -- compared with black people -- since Seattle voters designated such crimes the city's lowest law enforcement priority, according to a new city study.

Overall, police and prosecutors less often pursue possession charges against both blacks and whites. But the proportion of those charged who are African-American has grown.

In fact, although whites vastly outnumber black men and women in Seattle, authorities arrested and charged more African-Americans in 2006 on marijuana allegations, according to a report presented by the Marijuana Policy Review Panel. The panel recommended officials dig deeper into that data to determine what is causing the disparity.

'The report highlights the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement, which is indicative of the disparity of all drug enforcement," said Dominic Holden, who was chairman of the Initiative 75 campaign and a member of the review panel.

But City Attorney Tom Carr insisted that the numbers were too small to indicate a trend. "Drawing conclusions from data in the hundreds (of cases) is something that you can't do," Carr told the City Council on Monday.

In late 2003, Seattle voters approved an initiative directing city law enforcement to treat personal marijuana use by adults as its lowest priority. Since then, the overall number of cases investigated by police and pursued by city prosecutors has dropped, the report found. However, the study acknowledged it was unable to definitively link the decrease to I-75.

Still, Holden said in an interview that the report generally shows, "I-75 worked exactly as voters had hoped and as the campaign had promised."

Here are some highlights from the report:

# In 2003, Seattle police referred 181 male suspects to prosecutors for marijuana allegations. That figure dropped in 2004, but edged back up to 134 in 2006.

# Over the same period, the proportion of cases that police referred to prosecutors against black suspects grew compared with white suspects. The share of white men that police sought to charge dropped slightly, while the proportion of black males among the suspects grew from 52 percent to 57 percent. Among female suspects there was a larger disparity, although police sought charges against very few women. In 2003, black women made up 35 percent of the female suspects. Three years later, they accounted for half of the 14 women police sought to charge.

# The numbers were similar among charges filed by prosecutors. In 2003, city attorneys filed marijuana cases against 123 men and 19 women. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2004 and 2005. But charges against men jumped back up to 116 in 2006. The proportion of defendants who were black grew slightly over that period.

The report also found no indications the policy resulted in a jump in crime rates, increased marijuana use by youth or negative implications to public health.

Councilman Nick Licata, a member of the panel, said the report shows the initiative was "a good thing."

"It showed that you could actually make progress in legislating progressive drug reform laws and the sky doesn't fall down," Licata said. "Some fear that this would be the first step toward legalizing marijuana or drugs and I don't think that's going to happen.

"But I think this certainly opens the door for that conversation."

Having completed its assigned task, the panel likely will disband. It included representatives of city government, law enforcement, defense attorneys, a drug counselor and citizens.

Licata said he would like to see the city further explore the questions raised about racial disparity in enforcement. "It raises questions. And ones that we should continue to pursue," he said.

Another area bearing further study is that of drug policies as related to medical use of marijuana, Licata said. However, he has no immediate plans to propose such studies.

Carr, meanwhile, also urged the council to repeal that policy established by the initiative. That is a suggestion that is neither officially proposed nor likely.

"It's time to rethink this," Carr said. "Instructing your public safety agency to pay less attention to a crime is not good public policy."

"We're not going to legalize marijuana in Seattle -- we can't," Carr said, noting that marijuana use is prohibited under state law. "But we can't send a signal that it's OK. ... It's not a good thing."

Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Copyright: 2008, Seattle P-I
Contact: Angela Galloway, P-I Reporter
Website: Pot arrests higher for blacks in city
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