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Thursday, August 19, 2004 - Page updated at 09:30 P.M.
Marijuana measure called effective by supporters and foes
By Bob Young
The number of people prosecuted for pot possession has plummeted, and despite predictions of naysayers, there is no evidence of widespread public pot consumption as a result of the measure, which voters approved last year.
To Dominic Holden, spokesman for the I-75 campaign, that means Hempfest this weekend will likely be more fragrant than last year, as attendees at the annual pro-pot event will have yet another reason to whoop it up and light up.
Approved by 58 percent of Seattle voters in last September's election, I-75 relaxes enforcement against adults possessing 40 grams or less of pot for personal use. The measure did not change city policies toward sellers or minors.
The initiative appears to be working as intended, according to Holden and City Attorney Tom Carr, an outspoken opponent of I-75.
Statistics for the first six months of 2004 show that the city has prosecuted just 18 cases of marijuana possession compared with roughly 70 during the same time period last year.
"The early indication is that I-75 has been highly effective. That seems the only way you could explain the drastic reduction in cases," said Holden, a member of the city-sanctioned Marijuana Policy Review Panel created by the initiative.
In the state of Washington, possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The success of I-75 has put Seattle on the cutting edge of national marijuana-policy reform, Holden added. Activists in other cities such as Oakland, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Columbia, Mo., are preparing similar measures, and advocates in Seattle are talking about the possibility of liberalizing marijuana-possession laws on a statewide level.
Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said initiatives such as I-75 help police chiefs and elected leaders focus on more-serious crimes without worrying about the political backlash of appearing soft on pot.
"With the support of a majority of the voters, it makes it far easier for the chief to lower the priority given to minor marijuana offenses, which apparently has already begun to occur in Seattle," Stroup said.
Meanwhile, some Seattleites may be enjoying another benefit of I-75 less paranoia.
"People no longer feel they need to close the blinds when they do a bong hit after work," said Holden, 27, a waiter.
Dangers predicted by I-75 critics have not materialized. White House drug czar John Walters came to Seattle last year and warned about increased pot use among teenagers.
Carr voiced a similar concern, worrying that high-school students would misunderstand the measure, think pot was entirely legal and smoke it in public. But that hasn't happened, he acknowledged.
"I'm glad I was wrong," he said. "There is nothing to suggest I-75 has caused widespread use of marijuana in Seattle."
Still, Carr isn't sure the I-75 data is as rosy as Holden suggests. The city attorney said he couldn't draw firm conclusions from a data sample that represents a fraction of the 15,000 total cases filed by his office each year.
He also stressed that marijuana enforcement was already a low priority for Seattle police before I-75 passed his office prosecuted 196 cases in 2000, 138 in 2001, 161 in 2002 and 144 last year.
The impact of I-75 will be better understood as more data including the race of those arrested for possession is delivered to the city's 15-member pot panel, which is chaired by Councilman Nick Licata, and includes Carr and representatives from the police department and the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.
As part of I-75's mandate, the panel must write reports in 2006 and 2007 on the effect of the measure.
Licata agrees with Stroup that I-75 may help Seattle focus on more-serious drug issues.
"If you adopt a minor reform and the sky doesn't fall, it opens up broader discussions about how to deal with our drug problem, which isn't marijuana; it's crack, meth[amphetamine] and heroin," he said.
In the meantime, Holden predicted that people will more relaxed at this year's Hempfest and "there might be more smoking."
Carr said he didn't know how police would treat public pot smoking at Hempfest, but he did note that marijuana possession remains a state and federal crime.
So, when it comes to bong hits in front of a window, Carr offered this advice: "If I was doing that, I'd close the blinds."
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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