Stoned initiative?

The ACLU stumbles over legal hurdles in its effort to decriminalize pot.

SHOULD YOU ATTEND the 2001 edition of Seattle Hempfest the weekend of August 18-19, chances are you'll be asked to sign a petition to place an initiative on the municipal ballot in November 2002. Supporters are still working on its exact wording, but its gist is clear enough: to throw possession by an adult of 40 grams or less of marijuana into enforcement limbo—still illegal but explicitly designated a minimum law-enforcement priority, on par with jaywalking.

As petition drives go, this one should be a slam dunk: It takes fewer than 19,000 valid signatures to put an initiative on the Seattle ballot, and well over 100,000 marijuana-friendly folk are expected at Myrtle Edwards Park over the two days of this year's Hempfest, with another 200,000-plus reasonably hot prospects expected at Bumbershoot over Labor Day weekend. Once it's on the ballot, given the political propensities of Seattle voters, passage of such an initiative is virtually assured.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? It isn't. Signing the petition isn't going to harm anybody, but it's hard to see how it's going to do much good, either. The more one learns about the initiative plan, the more it seems a questionable investment of energy and money.

The problem facing all local campaigns to decriminalize or reduce penalties for drug possession is the same: Between the 1950s and the 1980s, state and local authorities were cajoled or bullied into accepting federal standards on what constitutes a drug crime. Now that there's a move at the grassroots to reconsider such laws, any relaxation of penalties at, say, the city level is likely to conflict with similar laws at the next higher level, and hence face being overruled.

The proposed initiative campaign for Seattle is being crafted specifically to work around this fact. In fact, the major problem facing those drafting its language is to make sure its terms don't conflict with existing law. But an initiative is legislation: a bill submitted by voters to voters for possible passage into law. What good does it do to pass a law that goes out of its way not to change existing law?

The task of explaining that conundrum has so far fallen to Jerry Sheehan, currently celebrating his 19th year as legislative director of the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "We feel that if the citizenry explicitly states that it wants adult possession of small quantities of marijuana to be given minimum law-enforcement priority, it will deliver a very serious message to public officials and the police."

No doubt—but is an initiative a suitable way to deliver such a message? "Don't change the law, just turn a blind eye to it" may be good interim advice for lawmakers and law enforcers while we're figuring out how to negotiate a truce in the war on drugs, but it suffers from one serious defect: Should it make it to the ballot and pass, anyone—why does the name Mark Sidran come to mind?—could go to court and make a pretty good case that the initiative process wasn't devised as a means to disguise a public-opinion poll as serious legislation.

It may seem odd that the ACLU would get involved in a drive to place an initiative on the ballot in the first place. Sheehan sees no conflict with the organization's traditional mission. "People think of us as primarily focused on litigation, but we're also just as concerned about public education and with actively lobbying at all levels of government when legislation affecting civil rights is under consideration.

"As the war on drugs has expanded over the last decade, it has impacted the rights of citizens in innumerable ways, from privacy issues to property seizure. Our national organization has been active in this area for at least the last three or four years. Here in Washington we take it seriously enough that in February we hired someone full-time to coordinate our efforts," Sheehan says.

That person, former housing advocate Andy Ko, came on line in February. His salary, like the overhead of participation in the marijuana initiative program, is covered by a $75,000 grant to advance drug policy reform from the Open Society Institute, created and funded by maverick libertarian billionaire George Soros.

The ACLU has been involved for some time in beating back new invasions of the personal sphere by the anti-drug crusaders in areas like drug testing in the workplace and improper property seizures. But you can't help wondering how a nonbinding resolution tricked up as legislation will help to blow away what Sheehan vividly calls "the miasma of the war on drugs."

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