Standing up for stoners

Attorney Jeff Steinborn fights for your right to party.

IN THE MIDST of the bandanna-wearing, tie-dyed crowd attending this weekend's Hempfest, Jeff Steinborn will be the guy in the suit. As a Hempfest organizer, he'll be smoothing his necktie and saying, "You're beautiful, you look great, but if you want to be taken seriously in this world, you've got to dress like me." Especially if you come to court, as Steinborn's customers do.

When he's not advocating the reformation of marijuana laws, he's in court as an attorney challenging them. Either way, "Dress to win," he says.

Specializing in drug cases since 1968, the dapper 58-year-old Seattle criminal attorney and cannabis activist is the go-to defender for anyone busted for marijuana violations. Jerry Sheehan of the ACLU tags Steinborn as an expert on drug laws and civil rights, and a county deputy prosecutor says simply, "He's the best, isn't he?" His admirers and detractors alike think he's what lawyering's all about—providing the most informed and aggressive defense available. After three decades of fighting laws and governments, he has earned an apropos title, the Public's Defender.

Aided by partner Alison Kay Chin in his small Pioneer Square law office, Steinborn juggles dozens of cases at a time, attracting an average of three new clients a week. He passionately believes potheads are victimized by the system and has earned a prize-fighter's reputation trying to prove it in the courtroom.

"Most of the accused," he says, "are demonized by the public and police. But my clients mostly are real nice folks. I don't represent any predators, child molesters, thieves, or wife beaters."

Steinborn personally keeps a low media profile and would rather be writing or talking about his cases than about himself. But he explains what motivates him: "I started out with the idea of being a lawyer who stood up for the rights of individuals," says Steinborn, who thinks draconian is too nice a way to describe today's drug laws. "That's the reason I became a lawyer."

As a law grad in his 20s, Steinborn launched his court career taking draft- evasion cases during the Vietnam years. When the drug war blossomed in the late 1960s, "I found myself sucked in. It was a natural."

His belief in the decriminalization of weed and the unfettered distribution of medical marijuana keeps his heart pounding, he says. Once someone is charged, "You can lose everything, from your home to your freedom."

Despite some decriminalization and other legal changes over the years, dope smoking remains a hazardous pastime, in Steinborn's perspective. Marijuana's main mind-boggling effect has been on our leaders. "They're mad with power," he says, chuckling. "The last 25 years, the government's been getting everything on its wish list from the courts or the legislators. Cops today really think they've got the power and responsibility to poke into your private life."

Steinborn, co-author of Marijuana: The Law and You (now only available used), considers himself the government's antidote. Though an officer of the court, he freely gives out legal tips to dopers on the Net or at public appearances. "I think I am allowed to tell you of some of the devices out there [used] to trick and capture you," he says. In particular, he warns growers of the biggest threat: the anonymous tipster, the citizen informant, the partner-turned-snitch.

"Police are terrorizing these people," Steinborn says of those who come to him. "They bully them into confessions and do it routinely."

In the end, it's costing a lot of money just to spoil people's fun, he thinks.

"How dare they spend a dime," Steinborn asks with a smile, "to keep us from the giggles and the munchies?"


THINK YOU MIGHT become a casualty of the war on drugs? Here are some of Seattle drug attorney Jeff Steinborn's best tips on, shall we say, observing the law:

Once you're suspected, you're fish in the barrel. At the border, officers can search you and your vehicle with a dog—without a warrant. If you look funny, smell bad, have been crossing too much, somebody will pull you over.

When arrested under any circumstances, don't talk. Whatever you say will be rewritten and enhanced. So shut up, shut up, shut up. You can say "Oh shit" or "Excuse me, officer, do you have any toilet paper?" But that's about it.

Your house may be searched. Your mom's house may be searched. Your bank accounts will be frozen. Your home, your car, your boat, and maybe even your lawn mower will be seized. Be ready to deal with this very traumatic loss without turning into a blubbering fool.

The prosecutor determines the sentence by what crime is charged, after which the judge can only evaluate categories and rubber-stamp predetermined sentences. In the U.S., a felony is nearly an economic death sentence. You get most of your rights back, but discretionary niceties such as employment, insurance, or credit are often impaired. Boeing and Microsoft won't consider you.

Prior to the actual trial, it used to be that some folks would get off on what many mistakenly refer to as "technicalities." As my mother used to say, "The Constitution is not a technicality!"

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