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.' "


Pubdate: Sun, 31 Aug 2003
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2003 The Seattle Times Company
Contact: opinion@seattletimes.com
Website: http://www.seattletimes.com/