Legalized pot?

Don't hold your breath.

AS IF COVETING our water and envying our dot-com fortunes weren't enough, those Eastern Washington wheat farmers also don't want us smoking pot.

The overriding powers of state law will continue to keep pot illegal in Seattle, despite the appearance of a city initiative aimed at chilling enforcement efforts against casual tokers. The recently introduced Initiative 73 would basically serve as a policy statement that citizens want the cops to focus on solving real crimes, not hassle pot smokers.

But, as cities have been prohibited since 1989 from passing more liberal local drug statutes, that's about all I-73 would do. Beyond directing the city to make the enforcement of laws pertaining to the possession of small quantities of marijuana the city's lowest public safety priority, the initiative would also remove marijuana prosecutions from Seattle Municipal Court and set a legal definition for the phrase "60-day supply of marijuana," a standard created by the state's 1998 medical marijuana initiative.

Dominic Holden of the Sensible Seattle Coalition (I-73's formal sponsor) says that, while the city can't unilaterally decriminalize marijuana possession, the initiative would represent the democratic voice of Seattleites who favor a tolerance policy on pot smoking. "It gives our police officers and our prosecutors the ability to focus on the real crimes, instead of arresting and prosecuting people who smoke a little bit of marijuana," he says.

The city of Seattle once had the state's most lenient pot laws. A 1975 statute made possession of 40 grams or less a noncriminal violation (the equivalent of a parking ticket). Drug war-minded state legislators were outraged; in 1989, they voted to force all cities to enforce the Washington law, which designates marijuana possession as a misdemeanor, punishable by a day in jail and a $250 fine for a first offense. Seattleites still grumble about the slight.

"It's basically wasting resources— arresting, prosecuting, and locking up people who aren't doing any harm to society," says Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-W), which aided in the drafting of I-73. "It's not the way the city should be spending its resources."

Andy Ko, director of the ACLU-W's Drug Policy Reform Project, speculates that removing pot possession cases from the Municipal Court could save the city money, but it appears that the state Legislature has beaten us to the punch there as well. According to Richard Greene of the Seattle Law Department, a 1997 state law mandates that cities pay prosecution and incarceration costs for nonfelony crimes, regardless of where they are prosecuted (under I-73, King County District Court would assume jurisdiction for pot possession cases).

On the bright side, I-73 seems a shoo-in to make it onto the ballot. Organizers should easily be able to gather the approximately 18,000 signatures needed at Hempfest and Bumbershoot, and Seattle voters are unlikely to vote down the rare ballot issue that doesn't seek to raise their taxes.

But real change in marijuana laws can only come at the state level. Last year, Alaskans voted down a sweeping initiative that would have legalized personal use of marijuana while freeing convicts jailed on marijuana charges. In 1999, Microsoft millionaire Bruce McKinney financed a short-lived state-initiative campaign that would have seen marijuana sold alongside Jack Daniels at state liquor stores. However, that initiative effort stalled, and McKinney disappeared as if in a puff of smoke.

Holden says McKinney is still an active player in the marijuana reform community, but adds that a state initiative would require gathering ten times as many signatures [as a city initiative] and running a major political campaign —a daunting task for a largely volunteer-run movement. A state initiative will come some day, he says, but for now, "we wanted to focus our efforts where we knew the voters would be right behind us."

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