The Port and the Pot Granny

Don't expect the tolerance of Hempfest to extend to Sea-Tac Airport.

Without even meaning to, a distinguished Seattle grandmother recently joined a select group that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, film director Louis Malle, former Georgia state Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III, Portland Trail Blazer Damon Stoudamire, Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber, Montel Williams, Dennis Hopper, a prominent Baltimore narcotics prosecutor, a Seattle-area church worker doing good deeds in Mexico, and the singers Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick (also a grandmother). She got nabbed with a personal stash at an airport.

The Seattle grandma, who chooses to remain anonymous, had packed hurriedly for a plane trip, grabbing a purse she hadn't used in a long time. At Sea-Tac Airport, she recalls, "My handbag was searched by airport security and a small amount of pot—maybe two tablespoons in a little plastic bag—was found, along with a pipe." She had utterly forgotten it was there. The visually conspicuous pipe may have increased her risk. Another Seattleite, an absentminded writer, reports that on his recent jaunt through Sea-Tac, he put his suitcase through the X-ray machine, flew off, unpacked at his hotel, and discovered a pot baggie, sans pipe, that airport security had overlooked and he'd forgotten in a suitcase pocket. Maybe marijuana really does impair memory.

The cops determined that Grandma had no outstanding warrants and asked if she had a prescription. "I replied, 'Not on me,' and no further questions were asked." When she got her hearing notice from Burien District Court eight months later, she naively considered just pleading guilty and accepting her slap on the wrist. When she found out conviction of possession means a mandatory night in jail, she lawyered up. "He sent me to a doctor for a prescription [technically, a doctor's authorization—pot prescriptions do not exist], since I have chronic pain from a back condition. No, the doc didn't backdate it, but the lawyer said the prosecutor might be willing to make a better deal if I had one."

Are doctor's orders really crucial in such cases? "That's something that'll be taken into consideration," confirms Port of Seattle Chief of Police Tim Kimsey. "We're not out hunting for anything in particular other than the terrorists." Says noted marijuana-case attorney Jeff Steinborn, "If you're an authorized marijuana user, prosecutors have been quite reasonable about that at the airport." Still, the Seattle grandma had to pay a $300 fine and $435 in court costs and attend a one-day drug/booze education class. "Most of my fellow 'students' were under 25," she says. They dubbed her "Pot Granny," and envied her quasi-right, under Washington law, to possess "up to a two-month supply of pot for medicinal purposes, the standard 'dose' being an ounce a week—much more than I smoke in two months!" During class recesses, "I was surrounded by people asking where and how to get a prescription and told them it might fly in Washington courts but was totally useless outside the state."

In fact, pot enforcement varies frighteningly within the state—and county, and city. "In a perfect world, everybody's treated the same every time," says King County Sheriff's Office spokesperson John Urquhart. "The attitude might be different in certain parts of rural King County than in liberal Seattle." Hempfest (Saturday, Aug. 20–Sunday, Aug. 21, at Myrtle Edwards Park) may be the safest place to possess pot—though it's not fully safe, and idiots who buy, sell, or flaunt pot in a cop's face there are in major danger.

Steinborn says the pothead's risk goes like this, in descending order: Thurston County, Sea-Tac, and Hempfest. "One cop said to me, 'I thought I smelled pot there, but my eyes are getting old, I just don't see it anymore,'" says Steinborn. "They don't send out the Nazis to Hempfest," he says. "They send their good cops. I've seen cops stuff [contributions] into donation boxes at Hempfest, you betcha. They're there to serve and protect, not protect us from the giggles and the munchies."

Not so in the deep, dark south. "You go down to Thurston County, and you think you're representing nuclear terrorists!" says Steinborn. He claims Thurston deputies "run amok prosecuting two-bit pot cases."

As for Hempfest and Sea-Tac, the same Port of Seattle police force works on both. At the airport, the problem is not that the cops are all satanic clones of John Ashcroft but that technology forces their hand. "Searching of bags is much more intense than it was before, and they've got better-quality machines," says Chief Kimsey. "Plastic explosives show up as an organic substance. So a bag of marijuana may look the same. The chances of somebody looking at that are greater." And people remain forgetful, or just plain stupid. "We had a lady who wanted to carry a chain saw full of gas onto the airplane," says Kimsey. It was a present for her son in Alaska. "You'd think this long after 9/11 people would remember—gee, I shouldn't bring that to the airport."

Though one respects the tough position of the cop in a terrorism era, it is appalling that Americans have ceded so much power to individual officers' discretion. In 2003, Grateful Dead lyricist and Harvard Law fellow John Perry Barlow, known as "the Thomas Jefferson of cyberspace," was busted at San Francisco Airport with doc-approved pot, and he's fighting his case in the courts. "It would be great if all [the authorities] were trying to do was protect the public interest," says Barlow. "And I'm sure that they believe they are. It's up to us to explain to them why they're wrong about this strategy." We'll keep you posted on Barlow's progress in disentangling the drug war's slimy tentacles from the War on Terror.

Seattle's Pot Granny plans to be more pragmatic. She paid her debt to Burien society, and if she manages not to break the law for six more months, the record of her misdemeanor will be expunged. The lessons she's learned won't be. "My lawyer suggested that I photocopy the 'prescription' and keep one copy with me at all times, one in my car and one in my house." Don't leave home without it! Or you might find yourself with some scary new roommates.

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