Prosecutors Object to War on Weed

The prosecution objects. That's one way to put it, at any rate.

Two news stories from the Pacific Northwest today pose an interesting question: Are prosecutors beginning to get fed up with the War On Weed? The two stories are completely unrelated, I should mention -- one is about a current prosecutor at the local level, and one is about a former federal prosecutor making a noteworthy endorsement. Neither has anything to do with the other, but both show some common sense being applied in refreshing ways. It's too early to call it a trend (even a regional one), but it certainly is a step in the right direction, at the very least.

Seattle's elected prosecutor said Monday he's dropping all tickets issued for the public use of marijuana through the first seven months of this year, because most of them were issued by a single police officer who disagrees with the legal pot law.

In a briefing to the City Council on Monday, City Attorney Pete Holmes says he is moving to dismiss approximately 100 tickets issued by the Seattle Police Department between Jan. 1 and July 31. His office also said it would be seeking a refund for 22 people who have already paid their $27 ticket.

One state to the south, a former federal prosecutor for Oregon has thrown her support behind a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in the state. Kris Olson, who "served as Oregon's chief federal prosecutor during the Clinton administration" made the news by joining House member Earl Blumenauer and a former Oregon Supreme Court justice in publicly supporting the ballot measure:

"I enforced our marijuana laws, and they don't work," Olson said in a statement announcing her endorsement.

"Filling our courts and jails has failed to reduce marijuana use, and drug cartels are pocketing all the profits," she said, citing federal statistics that show about one in 14 Oregon arrests is for marijuana possession.

In the first instance, this was nothing short of a prosecutor using his "prosecutorial discretion" to avoid wasting a lot of time in the courts, and (more importantly) to rein in one police officer who was obviously on a vendetta against the voters for passing a law he did not personally approve of.

One single police officer was responsible for eight out of 10 of all tickets issued in Seattle for public consumption of marijuana during the first half of this year. The other 20 percent were written by the entire rest of the police force, to put this another way. This officer wrote on one ticket he considered the new legalization law "silly." While the officer has been reassigned new duties after this came to light, there are a lot of folks with cases still in the legal system as a result of his actions.

In Washington state, of course, recreational marijuana use is legal. The voters approved this change in state law, and the prosecutor's actions quite obviously reflect the will of the people. But it didn't have to happen this way -- prosecutors in general are pretty much "tough on crime" types of people, and if this particular prosecutor had agreed with the cop's way of thinking, then these cases would have continued to clog the legal system all the way to the bitter end (all $27 of it). This prosecutor, however, objected to that scenario, and applied some common sense. He's even going the extra mile and trying to refund fines already paid. That is a truly commendable action -- once again, reflecting the will of the voters in legal reality.

The second news item doesn't deal with actual legal cases, and comes from a prosecutor who no longer works for the federal Department of Justice. Still, this is a stunning development. Federal prosecutors, after all, are not bound by any state law and therefore can apply federal law (where marijuana is still the most illegal of all drugs) without even having to weigh in on state politics. Believe it or not, there are some extremely zealous federal prosecutors all up and down the West Coast who are fighting tooth and nail against any state legalization efforts in unprecedented and creative ways. So hearing even a former prosecutor bluntly refute the entire purpose (and effectiveness) of the federal War On Weed is a welcome development indeed.

The language she used is a pretty strong condemnation of federal laws she upheld while in office: "I enforced our marijuana laws, and they don't work." Prosecutors are practical people who deal with the real-world aftermath of arresting marijuana users, so the argument used is not a moral one ("locking up marijuana users is wrong") or one of racial equality ("black and brown people are treated differently by the court system") or even a political one ("the public's mood has shifted"). Instead, it is a view from the front lines of the drug war which relies on personal experience in applying federal laws and the relative effectiveness of carrying out this job: "I enforced our marijuana laws, and they don't work."

Of all the pro-legalization arguments, this could perhaps be the strongest one. The laws don't work. They don't have the intended effect (the feds have been fighting the War On Weed for almost a century now, with precious little to show for it), and in fact they have severe unintended consequences ("drug cartels are pocketing all the profits"), therefore mindlessly continuing on the same course is nothing short of madness.

Kris Olson is not the first law enforcement officer to have this revelation and begin publicly trying to change the situation. An entire organization already exists ("Law Enforcement Against Prohibition" or "LEAP") for members of the law enforcement community (past and present) to advocate for marijuana legal reform. Many members are former cops who saw firsthand how pointless the entire War On Weed truly was, throughout their careers. Now freed of the prospect of ending their career over a public statement, many are speaking out on the subject. Their message is a simple one: Prohibition (of alcohol) didn't work, and prohibition of marijuana isn't working either.

Kris Olson is to be commended for raising her own prosecutorial objection, and for throwing her public support behind a ballot measure in the state where she used to uphold federal law. This personal connection to the state ballot measure might convince a few voters -- even "tough on crime" types -- that all the rest of the arguments aside, the law needs changing because it doesn't work. It does nothing short of waste time for the entire judicial system for something which shouldn't even be illegal in the first place.

The Oregon ballot measure race may be close. The year Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, Oregon had a similar (but badly-written) initiative on its ballot. It failed. This time around the effort is a lot more serious, but reliable polling on the subject is notoriously hard to do, so the vote might be very close in November.

Pro-legalization groups will be very closely watching the vote this year in Oregon (and in Alaska and Washington DC), so assumably they'll also be closely watching the impact of Olson's simple "the laws don't work" message. Olson's message is a powerful one because it could reach voters not generally open to other pro-legalization arguments (if you're a "law-n-order" type of voter, a former federal prosecutor's opinion should carry some weight, in other words). Perhaps more prosecutors -- both state and federal, both current and former -- can be enlisted in this movement. As I said, it is far too early to call this any sort of trend, but it certainly is a development worth taking note of. To end on the legal theme we began on: perhaps the voters will "sustain" these prosecutors' objections.


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