Tuesday, January 6, 2004
Kathleen Taylor - ACLU Director
In September, Seattle voters passed Initiative 75 by a solid 58 percent majority. Now, even though marijuana use is still against the law, arresting and jailing adults for marijuana use is Seattle's lowest enforcement priority. Law enforcement resources will be focused on serious crime rather than penalizing people for conduct that does not harm others.
Seattle's elected officials and law enforcement personnel -- whether supporters or opponents of I-75 -- have an obligation to see that the new law is implemented successfully. City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck took an important step last month when he appointed the Marijuana Policy Review Panel. Its 11 members include people who represent the interests of the police, prosecutors, drug-treatment providers, defense attorneys and the general community. The panel will analyze statistics and relevant information to determine if adult personal use and possession is indeed being treated as the city's lowest enforcement priority, as required by law.
This approach is especially timely, as Washington cities and counties are being forced to cope with limited public resources. In Seattle, 418 people were arrested for marijuana in 2001. These arrests entailed taxpayers paying for police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, bailiffs, juries, clerks and jail space. In this era of underfunded and congested courts, cuts in police department personnel and overcrowded jails, it makes no sense to waste public resources penalizing marijuana users.
The focus of law enforcement must be public safety, not enforcement of morality codes. The adult use of marijuana, like the adult use of alcohol, should result in arrest only if it is used irresponsibly and endangers the public.
Marijuana arrests bring their own social harms. A marijuana arrest jeopardizes a person's housing and employment, which can result in poverty and homelessness. A marijuana conviction, for even the smallest amount, leads to ineligibility for federally funded student loans, which can severely limit a young person's future. Criminal conviction for possessing less than an ounce-and-a-half of marijuana can lead to disqualification for family cash assistance and the food stamp program, which many poor families depend on to avoid malnutrition and to survive unemployment.
Initiative 75 also will help protect medical marijuana patients. In 1998, more than 75 percent of Seattle voters supported Initiative 692, the state Medical Use of Marijuana Act. The voters recognized that people who use marijuana to relieve suffering caused by AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other dire illnesses should never be threatened with arrest, prosecution and the loss of their homes. Yet even after adoption of the medical marijuana act, law enforcement officials still threaten patients and caregivers with arrest and seizure of their property. By making most marijuana law enforcement the city's lowest police priority, I-75 reduces the danger faced by Seattle's vulnerable medical marijuana patients.
Initiative 75 should be a source of pride for everyone who cares about establishing a rational, humane and effective response to drug use. Seattle is beginning a long-overdue reconsideration of our state's and nation's failed drug policies. People should not be treated as criminals simply because they choose to use marijuana. Seattle is now one small step closer to sensible drug policies that are successfully being implemented in England, Canada and many other nations.
Kathleen Taylor is executive director of the American Civil Liberties
Union of Washington.
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