The Case For Pot
What do a Seattle cop, an Edmonds travel writer and the ACLU have incommon? They all want to legalizemarijuana, and not just for medical purposes. As Seattle’s annual Hempfest returns to Myrtle Edward Park this month, these odd bedfellows are putting Seattle at the center of a national conversation about marijuana reform
By Yemaya Maurer
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Hempfest: August 2006. On the shores of Puget Sound in Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park, a hard rock band wraps up its set. Amid vendors hawking colorful bongs, hemp knapsacks and Love Your Mother bumper stickers, the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings applauds. As the last strains of guitar music drift upward into the air, mixing with plumes of marijuana smoke, a broad-shouldered man with short, white hair pushes through the crowd. In bold print, the back of his T-shirt reads: cops say legalize drugs. ask me why. When he takes the stage and turns around, it’s clear why he’s prompting the question: This is Seattle’s former police chief Norm Stamper.
While Stamper isn’t scheduled to appear at this year’s Hempfest, at the event two years ago he addressed the crowd on an issue that he continues to speak out on: the legalization of marijuana. So how does a cop go from busting people for pot to advocating its decriminalization?
Stamper recently recounted a story from his rookie year as a cop when he arrested a 19-year-old for marijuana possession, handcuffed him, put him in the back of his squad car and started driving toward the station. As he looked at his charge in the rear-view mirror, he realized he’d just arrested a young man who hadn’t been hurting anybody. “I could have been doing real police work,” Stamper says. “I could have been intervening in domestic violence. I could have been stopping people from hurting other people—that’s noble, honorable work.” It was a turning point for Stamper, who made a vow to treat adult marijuana possession enforcement as his lowest priority. He did so throughout his tenure as police chief, and in 2003, three years after he retired, Seattle residents passed Initiative 75, making adult marijuana possession the lowest priority for city police—an initiative that led to similar reforms in other cities, including Denver. Leadership on initiatives such as this, as well as advocacy by high-profile activists such as Stamper, has put Seattle at the center of a national conversation about marijuana decriminalization.
Stamper is one of the more unlikely advocates for marijuana policy reform—and he holds a position that’s radical, even to many of those who attend Hempfest (arguably the largest cannabis reform rally in the world). While many reform advocates would like to see marijuana decriminalized, Stamper takes it several steps further: He wants marijuana—and all drugs—to be legalized, regulated and controlled. Only then, he argues, can we take power away from drug lords, get users the help they need and allow law enforcement to focus on violent crimes.
Stamper sits on the advisory board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national nonprofit organization with 6,500-plus members who advocate for the end to the war on drugs. As a member of LEAP, he often gives speeches, such as the one he gave earlier this year to students at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center. As he paced the stage in his polished leather shoes and pressed black suit, he called the war on drugs the most damaging social policy since slavery, and a failure. “Today, drugs are more readily available at lower prices and higher potency than at any time in the drug war.” Among the stats he cited: $1 trillion has been spent on the war on drugs; more than a half-million Americans are currently in jail as a result of it; and in 2006, a record 829,627 individuals were arrested for marijuana offenses in America.
Several audience members brought up an issue frequently raised on this topic—whether it’s moral for a government to legalize drugs that can hurt people and lead to addiction. It was clearly a question Stamper had heard before. In a passionate yet well-rehearsed response, he said that legalization, regulation and control won’t solve the drug problem, but at least users will get drugs at the proper strength and have access to resources that will help them limit or stop their drug use. One student, sitting in the back row, asked the question everyone secretly hoped someone would pose: Does Stamper smoke pot? Sidestepping the question, he told the group that he cherishes his privacy, and that it’s nobody’s business whether or not he uses pot. The only things that get him off Orcas Island where he lives are what he calls the three D’s—domestic violence, the death penalty and drug policy reform, issues that he speaks about across the country.
No one is happier to have Stamper on the side of legalizing pot than Vivian McPeak, executive director of Hempfest and self-described traditional hippie (his gray dreadlocks and long beard fit the part). McPeak devotes himself full time, year-round to organizing Hempfest. “If someone would have told us in 1991 [the year Hempfest started] that 15 years later the chief of police would be on our stage, speaking our same message of freedom and responsibility, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy,’” McPeak says, adding that Stamper adds a lot of credibility to Hempfest and has helped generate positive media coverage. Too often, he says, media coverage has focused more on the festival component of the event, rather than the forum it provides for discussion about marijuana policy reform.
“People who dismiss us as a bunch of people smoking pot in the park are completely missing the point,” says McPeak. “This movement is about people losing their homes, their jobs and their kids, kids getting kicked out of school, people being incarcerated for an equal or greater amount of time than those committing violent crimes. It’s not funny.” McPeak, who has been with Hempfest from the beginning, originally got involved to celebrate personal freedom. But over the years, he has focused more on what he calls the unjustified and inequitable incarceration of otherwise innocent people who are caught with marijuana in their possession. In 2006 alone, according to the FBI, 44 percent of drug arrests made were for marijuana—more than any other drug. And 89 percent of those arrests were for possession only, not trafficking.
The ACLU of Washington is another organization involved with marijuana reform. This winter, it launched “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation”, a multimedia campaign that casts marijuana policy reform as a matter of civil liberty and racial justice, an argument that is slowly experiencing increased traction. According to Alison Holcomb, Washington ACLU’s Marijuana Education Project director, marijuana prohibition is rooted in racism. Until the 1960s or ’70s, marijuana was viewed by the public as primarily the intoxicant of marginalized people, such as immigrants and black jazz musicians. Because these outsiders’ use of “wacky tobaccy” scared mainstream Americans, prohibitionists relied on fear to push anti-marijuana laws through federal legislation. Marijuana laws are still enforced disproportionately against people of color: While 74 percent of marijuana users are white and 14 percent are African American, African Americans account for 30 percent of marijuana arrests.
The ACLU’s educational campaign has another unlikely marijuana advocate as host: renowned Edmonds-based travel writer and TV celebrity Rick Steves. The campaign’s Web site and television program (available 24/7 to Comcast On Demand subscribers) features likable, uncontroversial characters such as Steves who encourage people to talk publicly about marijuana and its prohibition. The ACLU supports a public health approach to drugs, including marijuana. Holcomb says that marijuana is a safe way to start addressing the war on drugs, and that Steves is the ideal person to start the conversation: He’s the father of two teens; he and his wife, Anne, are active philanthropists in their community; he’s a committed member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and he often writes and speaks publicly about his deep concern for this country.
When asked why he’s chosen to focus on marijuana rather than other pressing social issues, Steves’ answer is simple: “Anybody can talk about homelessness and everyone claps, but people are afraid to talk about marijuana…. I can speak out and survive. I don’t need to be elected or promoted.” Steves’ successful company—which publishes guidebooks and hosts overseas trips—employs 80 people. The nature of his business means that he spends a good chunk of each year traveling the world, where he sees firsthand how many other countries have addressed their drug problems more successfully than the United States. He’s occasionally smoked marijuana while abroad and doesn’t want to lie about it to his kids or to anybody else. He believes this country can adopt a pragmatic policy toward marijuana with a focus on harm reduction and public health, rather than tough but counterproductive criminalization. When he accepted the Luther Institute’s Wittenberg Award, recognizing outstanding service to church and society earlier this year, he didn’t pull any punches as he talked about drug policy reform to the mostly conservative crowd.
For most, Steves’ message is a little more palatable than Stamper’s, as Steves advocates for decriminalization, not legalization. He points to the Netherlands, where marijuana is decriminalized—sales are not legal and regulated, but the criminal penalties are absent—as an example of a country that approaches marijuana from a public health perspective rather than a criminal one. The Dutch government invests more in marijuana education, prevention and treatment than in prosecuting and jailing users. “They don’t have all the answers, but they’re comfortable with the gray zone,” says Steves.
When he can get mainstream people talking about marijuana policy reform, Steves feels like he’s putting his fame to good use. He writes op-ed pieces in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he speaks about the issue on public radio and he appears on television shows such as Evening Magazine. But when he talks each year at Hempfest, he worries that he’s preaching to the choir. “It would be great if everyone there would buy a few less T-shirts and take that money to support advocacy groups such as NORML.” The group, on whose advisory board Steves sits, lobbies Congress and state legislatures for more rational and cost-effective marijuana policies. He finds it disappointing when people smoke marijuana recreationally and responsibly, but do not get involved in advocacy. Mostly he sees Hempfest as a celebration of a subculture, a good thing in and of itself. “But if you want to win the war on criminalization, you’ve got to cut your hair, put on a shirt and go talk outside the choir.”
Some experts involved in drug policy reform have concluded that the facts are in and there’s nothing to discuss. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (DCP), a component of the Executive Office of the President, for one, stands firmly behind the federal law, which states that marijuana is illegal and that getting high on marijuana can impede human development and impair judgment. Under federal law, possession of any amount is punishable by up to one year in jail for a first offense and a minimum fine of $1,000—the punishment increases with each offense; the sale or cultivation of any amount less than 50 kilograms is a felony punishable by five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. In Washington state, possession of 40 grams or more can result in five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Other experts, such as Dr. Roger Roffman, a professor of social work at the University of Washington, say that marijuana is harmful and that criminalizing people for its use is even more harmful. Roffman has studied marijuana use for 40 years, initially among service personnel in the Vietnam War. He currently researches marijuana dependence and, with federal funds, studies counseling approaches to treating adults dependent on marijuana. He argues that even with the ACLU’s recent efforts and with Hempfest gaining more credibility as a reform rally, major strides in marijuana policy reform will not happen until reform advocates acknowledge that marijuana can be harmful, should not be used by children and should not be used continually by teens or people with certain health issues. Only when advocates acknowledge this, will the public become comfortable talking rationally and openly about marijuana decriminalization, he says.
No matter where they fall on the spectrum of proposed policy reform, decriminalization advocates and many legal experts and politicians agree that our current marijuana laws are not working. Today, 98 million Americans—a third of our population—admit to having tried marijuana. They acquired the drug from dealers who had all the control during the transaction. “The way things are now, we can’t control how strong the pot is, what pesticides are used, whether it’s been laced with cocaine, nothing!” says the ACLU’s Holcomb. To those who argue that marijuana is a gateway drug, Steves counters that it only has that role in that it puts young people out in the streets with people who have a financial incentive to sell harder stuff.
Hempfest is one way marijuana policy reform proponents are trying to get their message out, using the hook of entertainment. But once there, organizers work to impart advocacy. Sometimes the two have mixed, as in a performance on the Hempfest main stage in 2005 by Alison Holcomb. To prove that what the messenger looks like does matter if you want to be heard, she started her speech wearing an over-the-top hippie chic outfit, complete with tie-dyed muumuu and peace-sign glasses; by the end, she’d stripped down to her customary lawyer attire—black pant suit, Barbara Bush pearls.
Other decriminalization activists focus on reaching out to parents. Sandee Burbank, the founder and executive director of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA), an Oregon-based group with 2,000 members who want to help people make informed decisions about drugs, travels around the country talking about drug consumer safety. One stop on her annual tour is Hempfest, which gives her the opportunity to talk with parents about the potential dangers of all drugs—including prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications—compared to medical marijuana, which she believes is far more useful and less harmful. She would like to see marijuana legalized so people have the option to choose it over other, more dangerous drugs.
Medical marijuana is the most successful realm of drug policy reform, at least at the state level. Voters in Washington state passed the Medical Use of Marijuana Act in 1998, which allows patients with certain chronic, fatal and debilitating diseases to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana with a doctor’s authorization. (The state Legislature has mandated that the Washington State Department of Health spell out exactly how much a 60-day supply constitutes; a decision on the matter was expected around July 1, after this issue went to press.) Other states have similar measures, but none of them change federal marijuana laws, which do not recognize state medical marijuana laws: Anyone who grows, distributes, dispenses or possesses marijuana for any purpose may still face federal prosecution—felony charges, jail time, fines and loss of financial aid.
If Seattle’s marijuana advocates have their way, people across the nation will stop with the Cheech and Chong jokes and start talking about marijuana decriminalization around their dining-room tables, in front of their legislatures and, for two days each August, at a waterfront celebration in honor of a plant called pot.