For Seattle Cops, Marijuana Biz Is Business As Usual

The first marijuana retail shops are opening up in Washington this week. It’s the last big piece of a citizens’ initiative passed in 2012 that regulates the drug like alcohol. With Alaska voters considering a similar ballot measure this fall, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez checks in with Seattle law enforcement to see how they’re dealing with the new policy.

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Seattle Hempfest is like stoner Lollapalooza … if Lollapalooza weren’t already friendly to stoners. Every year, musicians, actors, activists, and a quarter-million attendees come out to express their support for legal marijuana.

(Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)
(Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

Last summer was the first time attendees who had the drug on them weren’t necessarily breaking state law, and the Seattle police department was ready for it.

“We basically crashed that party,” says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, with the Seattle Police Department. “We gave out a thousand bags of Doritos with little informational stickers on them.”

Whitcomb handles public affairs for the department, and he still has one of the baggies on his desk nearly a year later. He gets a kick out of the do’s and don’ts plastered on the chips.

WHITCOMB: Don’t give, sell, or shotgun weed to people under 21. Don’t use pot in public. You could be cited, but we’d rather give you a warning. Do’s: Do listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at a reasonable volume. Do enjoy Hempfest.

Since Washington voters passed a marijuana initiative, possession crimes are a thing of the past. If you’re an adult, you can buy, hold, and smoke marijuana without running afoul of the law.

In a lot of places, this would be revolutionary from a policing standpoint. But in Seattle, not so much. The city stopped prosecuting minor drug crimes a decade ago, and Whitcomb says the passage of the initiative wasn’t a drastic change for his department.

“Yeah, not that big of a deal for us, because we already triage to go after those criminal events that are going to be jeopardizing people’s well-being.”

In the year since the initiative passed, Seattle’s violent crime rate has gone down two percent, while the total crime rate is up a single point. Whitcomb doesn’t say either of these shifts have anything to do with marijuana legalization. If anything, he thinks the lack of major movement on crime stats shows that Seattle hasn’t become a stoner paradise or gone to hell in a hemp-woven hand-basket.

“You are not going to be walking into a giant green haze of smoke. Seattle hasn’t really changed that much with the passage of I-502.”

But Whitcomb says that even if legalization opponents’ worst fears haven’t come to life, he gets where they were coming from.

“There was some reasonable fear that there might be increases in crime events. People had been concerned that there would be more underage use, people we concerned that there would be more dealing that had been driven underground. So, we wanted to make sure that we were letting people know what the changes were in law,” says Whitcomb. “And guess what: Kids have been smoking pot for years. They will continue to smoke pot for years. And it’s still a misdemeanor.”

Not every police officer within the Seattle PD is on board with the Department’s attitude, though. Last month, Seattle public radio station KUOW reported that two detectives left the media unit over disagreements involving marijuana legalization.

In Alaska, some law enforcement officials are also raising concerns. Last month, the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police announced it would take $6 million to train officers to recognize marijuana crimes like driving under the influence. That number does not factor in money lost from drug forfeiture on the cost side of the balance sheet. But it also doesn’t take into account money not spent processing minor drug crimes or the potential of increased tax revenue for departments, savings touted by marijuana advocates.

AACOP Executive Director Kalie Klaysmat is generally wary of the measure, and of some of the positive news from Washington and Colorado.

“Anything that anyone is telling you there is purely anecdotal,” says Klaysmat. “It’s purely their sense of things, and that may or may not be accurate.”

Klaysmat’s preferred course of action would be to wait at least another election cycle to let the legalization experiment play out in other states.

“I mean it might not change the fact that we are going to have costs,” says Klaysmat. “But I think everybody would feel a lot better about it being able to have hard data from other states who have done it, rather than be in this world of speculation where one side is saying, ‘Oh, everything will be wonderful,” and the other side is saying ‘We’re not so sure.'”

Back in Seattle, the city’s former police chief thinks the experiment is playing out pretty well.

Norm Stamper meets me at a downtown coffee shop, and the only drug anyone seems to be consuming is caffeine. He served as a cop for 34 years, with six of those in charge of Seattle’s police department. Now, he’s involved with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Stamper says he first started taking issue with anti-marijuana laws after getting a call where he had to kick a door in to arrest a high 19-year-old from his own home.

“That was my ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Stamper. “I would now spend three hours processing that arrest. I would have to inventory the soggy remains of his stash. I would have to write a case report, a narcotics impound report, and an arrest report. So, I was no longer available during those three hours to the men and women and children of my assigned area, my police beat.”

Stamper’s not surprised that some Alaska police chiefs are worried about training costs, and he even points out that a quarter of those surveyed don’t anticipate any problems. So far, he hasn’t really seen any in Seattle.

“The sky is still above us. You do not see crazed druggies accosting people on the streets or running naked down Fifth or Fourth Avenue,” says Stamper. “Life continues much as it has.”

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agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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