Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Seattle paves the way for reform

Media Awareness Project archives a good piece reviewing the effects of I-75, the marijuanan decriminalization measure that was passed in 2003 in Seattle.

Largely below the radar, Seattle has moved to the new cutting edge of American social policy on adult drug use.

The most obvious example of this is Initiative 75, passed by a strong majority of Seattle voters in 2003. The measure mandated that arrests of adult marijuana users would become the lowest priority for law enforcement agencies in the city, all but decriminalizing pot smoking in Seattle. It was opposed by drug warriors from U.S. Drug Czar John Walters on down to Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr, but it nevertheless succeeded in radically altering the climate for pot smokers here, and has become the model for subsequent similar measures in Oakland, Denver, and Columbia, Missouri. Add in Seattle's innovative drug court, which allows people convicted of drug crimes to choose treatment over incarceration, and the King County Bar Association's new and groundbreaking blueprint for drug-law reform in Washington State, and this city emerges as something of a demonstration project on drug reform for the rest of the country.
The good news is it's working just as its proponents said it would. Arrests are down thus freeing up law enforcement and the court system for serious crimes and the predicted confusion and spike in teenage pot smoking never occurred as the doomsayers predicted. In fact teenage use declined slightly. Of course that doesn't stop the prohibitionists from continuing to pass on, shall we say, incorrect information.
Faced with this evident lack of I-75-induced cataclysm, Carr now openly admits he was wrong about some of the law's predicted negative impacts. But he is still not any closer to thinking it might have been a good idea. "It's a silly law that was enacted for political purposes," he says. These days he employs a strategy of minimizing the law's positive impact, suggesting it was unnecessary in the first place, and ineffective as a program for social change in the second.
In trying to minimize its impact he stated grossly inaccurate numbers to the press. It's not clear that he corrected the record but all quibbling aside, it's clear the decrim measures work, as other cities - most recently Denver - have followed suit. The momentum is building but the real question is where does reform go from here? These measures are admittedly more symbolic than a practical means of changing the laws.

Enter the Kings County Bar Association, who are taking the lead on ending the WOsD once and for all - for all drugs. They've produced a 100 page document for use by lawmakers. It obviously covers a lot of ground but here's the gist of it.
The report imagines the State of Washington controlling the distribution of currently illegal drugs, with softer drugs like cannabis perhaps being taxed and sold only to citizens who meet certain requirements ( old enough, a resident of Washington, not too intoxicated at time of purchase ), while harder drugs like heroin and crystal meth might only be given out under medical supervision to addicts involved in treatment. It's hardly the Bacchic free-for-all that backers of the status quo imagine when they talk worriedly about decriminalization. In fact, it could end up, in practice, being far more restrictive than the current drug-control regime. The aim would be to reduce crime by drying up the illegal markets for illicit drugs; improve public health by focusing state efforts on treating, rather than imprisoning, addicts; and protect children better by cutting down on the black-market drugs available to them while also cutting down on the incentive of drug gangs to lure children into black-market drug work.
The article notes that bar associations in many other states are taking up the issue with an eye towards producing similar reports. This can only be good for reform and it says much about the much maligned profession of the law.

Attorneys after all, also benefit from the prohibition and these folks will lose some significant amount of billable hours when the WOsD ends. It's to their credit that they recognized the inequities and futility of the drug laws and press ahead for the social good even against their own economic interest.


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