Report: Disproportionate number of blacks arrested on pot charges in Seattle


The Seattle Post Intelligencer

SEATTLE — Seattle has seen a larger drop in marijuana-related criminal cases against white defendants than against black people since voters in 2003 designated such crimes the city's lowest law enforcement priority, according to a new city report.

In fact, although whites vastly outnumber black men and women in Seattle, authorities arrested and charged more African Americans in 2006 on marijuana allegations.

A city-appointed marijuana policy review panel recommended officials dig deeper into that data to determine what is causing the disparity.

Still, City Attorney Tom Carr insisted that the numbers were too small to indicate a trend. "Drawing conclusions from data in the hundreds (of cases) is something that you can't do," Carr told the council.

In late 2003, Seattle voters approved an initiative directing city law enforcement to treat personal marijuana use by adults as its lowest priority. Since then, the overall number of cases investigated by police and pursued by city prosecutors has dropped, according to a report presented by the Marijuana Policy Review Panel. However, the study was unable to definitively link the decrease to Initiative 75.

Here are some highlights from the report:

— In 2003, Seattle Police referred 181 male suspects to prosecutors for marijuana allegations. That figure dropped in 2004, but edged back up to 134 in 2006.

— Over the same period, the proportion of cases that police referred to prosecutors against black suspects grew compared with white suspects. The share of white men that police sought to charge dropped slightly, while the proportion of black males among the suspects grew from 52 percent to 57 percent. Among female suspects there was a larger disparity, although police sought charges against very few women. In 2003, black women made up 35 percent of the female suspects. Three years later, they accounted for half of the 14 women police sought to charge.

— The numbers were similar among charges filed by prosecutors. In 2003, city attorneys filed marijuana cases against 123 men and 19 women. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2004 and 2005. But charges against men jumped back up to 116 in 2006. The proportion of defendants who were black grew slightly over that period.

The report also found no indications the policy resulted in a jump in crime rates, increased marijuana use by youth or negative implications to public health.

Outgoing council president Nick Licata, a member of the panel, said the report shows the initiative was "a good thing."

"It showed that you could actually make progress in legislating progressive drug reform laws and the sky doesn't fall down," Licata said. "Some fear that this would be the first step toward legalizing marijuana or drugs and I don't think that's going to happen.

"But I think this certainly opens the door for that conversation."

Having completed its assigned task, the panel will likely disband. It included representatives of city government, law enforcement, defense attorneys, a drug counselor and citizens.

Licata said he would like to see the city further explore the questions raised about racial disparity in enforcement. "It raises questions. And ones that we should continue to pursue," he said.

Another area bearing further study is that of drug policies as relate to medical use of marijuana, Licata said. However, he has no immediate plans to propose such studies.

Carr, meanwhile, also urged the council to repeal that policy established by the initiative. That is a suggestion that is neither officially proposed nor likely.

"It's time to re-think this," Carr said. "Instructing your public safety agency to pay less attention to a crime is not good public policy."

"We're not going to legalize marijuana in Seattle — we can't," Carr said, noting that marijuana use is prohibited under state law. "But we can't send a signal that it's okay ...It's not a good thing."

Copyright 2008 The Seattle Post Intelligencer
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