Despite the new city attorney announcing that he would refuse to file marijuana charges and a law that makes pot the city’s lowest enforcement priority, Seattle police continue to make marijuana possession arrests, according to records obtained from the Seattle City Attorney’s office. Since January 1, Seattle police officers have referred cases to prosecutors stemming from 33 marijuana possession arrests.
“We understand that it is a low priority and the city attorney may not file charges, but that does not negate the fact that it is against the law,” says Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Renee Witt.
Black people are more likely to be arrested, the records indicate. Of the arrestees, 18 of them were black and 14 were white—even though only 8.2 percent of the city’s population is black but 68.9 percent of the city’s population is white, demographic statistics show. Federal studies have shown that black people in metropolitan areas use marijuana at only slightly higher rates that white people.
“I don’t necessarily think there is a huge disparity there,” says Witt. She adds, “If you go to an area in North Seattle where there are not a lot of people of color, there are more white offenders. If you go to South Seattle, where there is a higher percentage of people of color, you may see higher numbers there.”
But several studies have found racial disparities in Seattle's drug enforcement—by Harvard, by a UW professor, by the ACLU (.pdf), and the City of Seattle—suggesting a systemic bias in SPD practices.
Seattle voters made marijuana possession arrests the lowest enforcement priority in 2003 by passing Initiative 75. Pete Holmes, the city attorney elected in November, said he would stop all pot prosecutions. He’s remained mostly true to that pledge; his office filed only one pot possession case as one of three charges: interfering with traffic, use of a weapon, and pot possession. The defendant plead guilty.
The records indicate that none of the suspects were booked into jail. They may have been cited after being searched, says drug policy director of the ACLU of Washington Alison Holcomb. However, Holcomb adds, “From a legal standpoint, they are arrested if they are not free to go.”
This suggests that Seattle Police Department, which claims to be understaffed, is using state pot laws largely as an excuse to stop people on the street and search them, amounting to a form of institutionalized harassment (again, mostly of black people). Even though defendants won’t go to jail or face any penalty, and police have wide discretion in enforcement, and the city attorney Holmes believes it’s within the legal right of law enforcement to pass over pot cases, Witt defends the SPD's practice. "Until it is against the law to make an arrest we will continue to arrest people when appropriate, when we can, and when there is not something more pressing at that time," says Witt.