Cannabis users across the state of Washington sparked up to celebrate the passage of Initiative 502 last year, which legalized the personal use and possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21. I-502 still prohibits the consumption of marijuana in public places, and driving under the influence of marijuana, but along with the state of Colorado, Washington seems poised to blaze a new trail for marijuana legalization.
But while visions of hash bars and retail weed outlets danced though their heads, reality soon set in and cannabis enthusiasts across the Evergreen State were told that retail storefront pot shops were at least a year away. Washington’s State Liquor Control Board has until December 2013 to enact a “licensing system for the manufacture and sale of marijuana”, but until then, residents are permitted to have that ounce….as long as nobody “manufactures” it, or sells it to them.
As the Federal Government and the Department of Justice continue to punt when asked how they plan to respond to voter-passed state level marijuana laws, like I-502, and as the Washington state government slowly works its way through the gritty political details of how to implement the new law, the residents of Washington state are entitled to their right to possess marijuana.
This has led to a boom in street sales of the dried plant, diverting law enforcement resources in a way that bills like I-502 are supposed to alleviate. In response, the Seattle Police Department initiated a six month investigation into street level drug dealing, focusing on a popular stretch of blacktop known simply as “The Ave” in Seattle’s Union District.
During the sweep, undercover agents sought to purchase hard drugs (cocaine, meth, heroin) and weapons, in an effort to ease the concerns of residents and business owners in the area who had been complaining of increased criminal activity. While trivial amounts of coke and meth were recovered in the sweep, and one handgun was purchased and taken off of the streets, the vast majority of the busts involved small quantity marijuana sales.
Of the 24 cases brought by the investigation, 18 of them involved marijuana sales. Of those 18 cases, only 36.8 grams of herb were recovered. Some of those busted with pot had prior convictions for drug sales or violent crime, and they were booked accordingly. Those with a cleaner record, busted only for the weed in the sweep, were instead handed what essentially amounts to a “cease & desist” letter from the Kings County Prosecutors Office and SPD.
The intent of the letter is to inform the recipient that law enforcement has their eye on them, and explains what the potential consequences can be for those engaging in criminal activity on “The Ave”.
Additionally, law enforcement feels that the letter can be used as another tool in prosecuting criminals who show no respect for the law. As SPD Narcotics Lieutenant Mike Kebba explains:
“Taking the admonishment approach may allow for these marijuana cases to be more favorably received in Superior Court. The offender will have been shown to have been warned about marijuana sales, and that they still returned, despite our attempt at gaining their cooperation. The admonishment letter is reasonable because we are not restricting their freedom to go anywhere. SPD will just be requiring them to comply with the law while in public places and refrain from drug dealing. This respects due process rights and does not circumvent the courts. This admonishment will hold them accountable no matter where they are in Seattle, not just the University District. This way we will not be simply displacing the problem elsewhere.”
As a show of good faith in respect of the newly passed Initiative 502, six of the “dealers” who were released from custody left the police station not only with the admonishment letter, but they were given all of their weed back, since it fell under the “one ounce limit” they are each entitled to. Seattle PD spokesman Sean Whitcomb summed up the giveback by saying, “In street dealing cases, this would be the first time. Ever.”
Seattle PD has been very proactive in trying to help residents to understand the new law, issuing a simultaneously funny and useful guidebook, and has even been re-training their canine units to chill out around pot.
This non-traditional form of law enforcement is a sign of things to come as the nation grapples with how best to implement the legalization of a plant that a majority of the country wants legal access to.