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Originally published Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 8:25 PM

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Seattle police: Blacks disproportionately cited for public pot use

A report by Seattle police shows blacks were disproportionately cited for consuming pot in public in the first six months of the year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Blacks were disproportionately cited by Seattle police for consuming pot in public in the first six months of 2014.

In a report delivered to the City Council Wednesday, the police department said officers wrote 82 tickets for public pot consumption in the first half of the year, with 37 percent of those going to blacks.

Blacks account for 8 percent of the Seattle population, according to 2010 census figures; 50 percent of the tickets went to whites, who represent 70 percent of the city’s residents.

Racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws is one of the chief arguments used by advocates for legalizing pot.

A national study by the ACLU found that 3.7 blacks were arrested for every white on pot charges. Survey data from the U.S. Public Health Service shows that blacks and whites consume pot at nearly the same rates; in 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using pot in the previous year.

The Seattle police study found that 99 percent of all public-use tickets were issued for infractions in the West Precinct, primarily in Victor Steinbrueck Park, Westlake Park, Occidental Park and downtown streets. The tickets come with a $27 fine. Just 6 percent of the 82 fines have been paid, according to police.

Overall, women accounted for just 11 percent of the citations; 41 percent of all people who received tickets lived in low-income housing, shelters, motels, or vacant lots. People cited ranged in age from 18 to 77, according to police.

Police will continue to collect data through 2015 as required by the council. A “robust analysis of the social justice implications” of citations “will not be available until that time,” wrote Assistant Chief Mike Washburn in a memo Wednesday to Council President Tim Burgess.

“While the sample size is small, it does indicate trends for race and homelessness we should continue to monitor,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes and City Council member Nick Licata in a joint statement. They also said the report “shows the need for places where people can legally consume marijuana in Seattle.”

The real issue is who police are likely to contact in downtown public spaces for violating the law, said Loren Atherley, a Seattle Police Department criminologist and co-author of Wednesday’s report. “I think what these results mean is we don’t know and that’s something we need to determine,” Atherley said.

The number of citations does not indicate aggressive enforcement, said police spokesman Sean Whitcomb, noting that Initiative 75, passed by voters in 2003, makes enforcing possession violations for small amounts of pot the lowest priority for Seattle police.

Citations were issued “primarily downtown where we received the most complaints and officers are still giving warnings when practical,” Whitcomb said.

Men are more likely to smoke pot than women, according to federal data. The gender disparity in Seattle citations for public consumption is not a big surprise, as a similar gap has been found in a national study of pot arrests. It may be because officers “tend to treat women more leniently than men, perhaps out of some sort of chivalry,” according to the authors of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Even after the passage of Initiative 502, which legalized weed in Washington in 2012, data still showed blacks were three times as likely to be arrested statewide for pot possession as whites, according to Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington.

“It is unfortunate but not terribly surprising that we’re still seeing disproportionate numbers in public infraction tickets,” said Holcomb, chief author of I-502. “And it’s clear we still have work to do with respect to public education and addressing the causes of the racially disproportionate data we continue to see in our policing.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.comOn Twitter @potreporter

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