As recently as 2009, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office routinely prosecuted #marijuana possession as a stand-alone offense. In one six-month period, 44 percent of the defendants were black — mostly men, mostly young — in a city with a black population of 8 percent, according to city records.
The picture gets worse the farther out you zoom. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that up to $14 billion a year could be saved nationwide by swapping prohibition for regulation. Half of the inmates in federal prisons — more than 100,000 — are there for drug offenses. The per-capita rate of incarceration for young black men exceeds that of Apartheid-era South Africa .
Marijuana legalization, here or nationwide, won’t entirely reverse those corrosive facts. But it’s a start. And Washington has the data to prove it.
After Initiative 502 passed, the number of cases involving simple drug possession, almost all of which is marijuana, fell off a cliff — from 5,531 in 2012 to just 120 in 2013, according to an analysis of state court data by the ACLU of Washington. (Those 120 cases likely involve defendants under 21; possession remains illegal for them.)
The good news, thus far, is that safety hasn’t been jeopardized, as opponents of Initiative 502 suggested. According to the Washington State Patrol, the number of marijuana drugged-driving cases rose from 988 before Initiative 502 to 1,362 last year, even as troopers are increasingly attuned to look for signs of stoned drivers.
“Yes it’s a slight uptick. But the sky is not falling,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.
Instead, Initiative 502 appears to have done what it said it would, in the most important way: The state is no longer wasting law enforcement time on marijuana use.
The other goals — starving a black market that preys on teens and churning out mounds of green cash to fund state health care — are a work in progress, because of a sputtering launch of the state-licensed stores.
But on a micro scale, there are encouraging signs. First-day sales at just three stores generated an estimated $62,000 in state tax revenue. A customer at Seattle’s first marijuana store joked Tuesday that her “dealer” texted after seeing her on TV. “Now I know why you’re not calling me,” the dealer wrote.
The opening of the stores — and the glitchy launch — is getting the headlines now. Liquor Control Board member Chris Marr is rightly focused on working out the kinks, but when I asked him about the history, he recalled the peaceful scene at the opening of a marijuana store in Spokane.
“You contrast it with the injustices of the past, it’s hard to reconcile,“ said Marr. “What was that fight for?”