Marijuana Activists Push for 'De-Prioritization'

Marijuana legalization activists are pushing for new city ordinances to make enforcement of pot possession the lowest priority for police and prosecutors. Seattle passed such a measure in 2003. Has anything changed on the streets there over the past four years?

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Activists who want to see marijuana decriminalized have tried a new strategy in recent years. Instead of fighting to change marijuana laws, they're actually convincing some cities to downplay enforcement. Denver is the latest to buy into the idea. Locals there voted last fall to make marijuana possession a low priority for police. Seattle was the first big city to okay the policy shift.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports on how its worked.

MARTIN KASTE: To illustrate Seattle's laidback attitude to marijuana, Dominic Holden picks up the local paper.

Mr. DOMINIC HOLDEN (Director, Seattle's Hempfest Festival): On the cover is me rolling a joint at my kitchen table.

KASTE: The photo spread dates back to 2004, shortly after Holden had helped to spearhead a voter initiative that made possession of marijuana Seattle's lowest law enforcement priority.

Mr. HOLDEN: We stepped outside, sat on the porch, me and a group of friends, and we smoked marijuana, and they took pictures and they ran them in the newspaper. Was I concerned that I would be arrested? No, not at all.

KASTE: Like many liberal-minded Seattleites, Holden is proud of the de-prioritization policy. He says it's just a more rational use of law enforcement resources, and he likes the fact that he lives in a city where catching pot smokers is at the bottom of the police to-do list.

Unidentified Man: I have never heard of it.

KASTE: But here on South Jackson Street, most people have no idea that marijuana has been de-prioritized. This is a black neighborhood, Jimi Hendrix grew up near here. And resident Michael Bryant(ph) says the cops on this beach are just as interested in pot as they ever were.

Mr. MICHAEL BRYANT (Resident, South Jackson Street, Seattle): You got some marijuana with you, that's their probable cause to stop you right there.

KASTE: Have you seen that happen?

Mr. BRYANT: I've seen it yesterday, it happened. A couple of friends of mine who were just walking, and the police just came and just arrested them for it.

KASTE: So when people say that marijuana is a low priority in Seattle, that's…

Mr. BRYANT: That's a lie. It's not what I'm seeing.

KASTE: In fact, right after the initiative passed, the number of marijuana busts did go down for blacks and whites. But the numbers soon went up again, and they went up faster for blacks. The Seattle police say all of these numbers are just too small to be statistically significant. After all, last year the city's pot cases had numbered a grand total of 125.

Still, Alison Holcomb of the Washington ACLU says the racial disparity is worrisome, especially when considered on a per capita basis.

Ms. ALISON HOLCOMB (Marijuana Education Project Director, ACLU): Because the disparity is so large, you know, we're talking about 12 to 1 ratio, that to me is a significant enough ratio that even though the numbers are really small we have to be looking on what's going on there.

KASTE: Holcomb is planning a study that will dig deeper into the arrest records to try to find out if de-prioritizing marijuana has somehow favored whites over blacks.

The police, meanwhile, say they're not playing favorites. The head of narcotics, Captain Mike Meehan, says his officers are just trying to balance a state law that tells them to pursue marijuana users with a city ordinance that tells them not to knock themselves out trying.

Captain MIKE MEEHAN (Narcotics Unit, Seattle Police Department): These officers want clear direction. And clear direction means do you want us to be illegal or do you not, you know, pick one side or the other.

KASTE: And some people are a little confused. In one notorious incident a couple of months ago, a car with Wyoming plates went cruising through downtown Seattle trailing a cloud of marijuana smoke.

Officer J.D. Huber recalls the scene.

Mr. J.D. HUBER (Seattle Police Department): They were driving around with their windows open in 35-degree weather and we smelled it. Okay, who's been smoking pot in there. It was all - we all have, you know, it was no big deal.

KASTE: The young men in the car told officers that they just moved to Seattle because they thought pot was legal here. The arresting officer had to break it to them that that wasn't quite the case.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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