If it's legal
10:36 pm
Thu October 11, 2012

Will legal marijuana make police less effective?

Washington voters are weighing whether to become the first state to legalize marijuana. All this week in our series "If it’s legal: Five ways legal pot could affect your life," KPLU reporters have been imagining what the future could look like if it passes.Today, we look at how legal pot could change policing.

In Washington state, between 9,000 and 10,000 people are arrested each year for possession of marijuana. If voters approve Initiative 502, it will suddenly be legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, enough to fill about a quarter of a small plastic sandwich bag. 

How would legalization affect who goes to jail and how our communities are policed?

As for who is being arrested now, Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force, says it isn't usually people who are just out to get high. 

"Are there people in jail for possession of marijuana? Ya, there are, but most of 'em have violated a parole or probation," he said.

In other words, he says, their marijuana use led them to do other things.

"So the judge has said you can’t use marijuana, because when you use marijuana you commit other crimes and then they get caught with it and they go to jail," Slack said.

A handy tool

Slack, who  is opposed to legalizing pot, says marijuana busts are an important part of law enforcement’s arsenal when it comes  fighting crime.

For example, he says,  as an officer, you might get a call to go to the local 7-11 because of a public disturbance. You get there and find the perpetrators have marijuana on them. You can book them and take them to jail.

Or, perhaps, you have a major crime case. The police can hold the suspect on a marijuana charge to buy time while they investigate.

“Whether it’s a robbery or murder or rape or burglary, or whatever. So, yeah, it’s a tool,” he said.

But the marijuana enforcement "tool," say supporters of the initiative, has been used unfairly against African American men. It’s something black ministers, including Reverend Leslie Braxton of Renton, have been preaching about. Here's a YouTube video of one of a sermon from May.

Is race a factor?

I-502 supporters point to statistics showing that while marijuana use is about even between blacks and whites, black men are 3 times as likely as white men to go to jail for it.

It’s this disproportionality argument that has fueled support for legalization from the groups such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the offices of the Tacoma Urban League , I sit down with Keith Blocker. His group, Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective, has endorsed I-502.

Walking while black

Blocker tells me he often feels he’s under suspicion just because of his race. He tells me about a recent experience he had when he was walking to a favorite restaurant in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

Blocker says a police car made a U turn to follow him, then the officer came into the restaurant and, he believes,  asked the host about him.

"Now, he took a lot of energy to make a U turn and follow me into a restaurant,” Blocker said.

He says that sort of selective scrutiny is typical if your black. The Hilltop neighborhood is one Tacoma police have targeted with extra patrols because of crime. But Blocker and others say, it’s this added attention that leads to disparity in arrests.

"If you’re looking for something and focusing on a particular area, you will find what you’re looking for,” Blocker said.

Do white students get a pass?

Blocker contrasts his experience in the Hilltop with what he found when he was attending the University of Puget Sound, a mostly white school. He says people selling marijuana there were white males who weren't being targeted by police.

And, he says, UPS, isn't unique.

“You could go on any college campus and find marijuana. And those people aren’t being arrested for it,” he said.

Blocker, who works with Middle Schoolers, says meanwhile black and minority kids who are using or selling small amounts of marijuana are seeing their "whole life being affected from one arrest."

Having an arrest record can mean  you don’t qualify for college loans and you can have trouble getting a job.

Will I-502 make a difference?

Any changes from passage of I-502 may not be as grand as proponents hope or opponents fear. A lot of people arrested for marijuana are in jail for other things. And, for anyone under the age of 21, it will still be illegal to possess an ounce of marijuana.

Still, for many supporters, it’s not just about marijuana arrests, it’s about taking an important first step in ending what they see as a failed war on drugs.