Law Enforcement and Decriminalized Marijuana

On Election Day, Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The future of both laws is uncertain, due to the fact that the drug is still illegal under federal law, which makes the creation of a legal market complex, to say the least. Nevertheless, within a few days, prosecutors in Washington dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, even though the new law doesn't officially take effect until December 6. Which is an indication that in the short term, the laws may have a substantial impact on the work of law enforcement, and the relationship of citizens to the police, in those states.

We don't know that for sure, of course. But the Seattle Police Department is already showing how hip it can be. As we learn via Romenesko, the SPD has a blog run by a journalist, who wrote a piece called "Mariwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle," that is, to say the least, not the kind of thing you expect from an employee of a police department. Here's an excerpt:

What happens if I get pulled over and I’m sober, but an officer or his K9 buddy smells the ounce of Super Skunk I’ve got in my trunk?

Under state law, officers have to develop probable cause to search a closed or locked container. Each case stands on its own, but the smell of pot alone will not be reason to search a vehicle. If officers have information that you’re trafficking, producing or delivering marijuana in violation of state law, they can get a warrant to search your vehicle.

SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?


The post ends with a clip of Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins smoking their pipes. Seriously.

One of the arguments the pro-legalization side has always made is that by allowing law enforcement to focus on real crimes instead of having to undertake thousands of arrests and prosecutions for marijuana possession, you could not only improve relations between the police and the community, but enable them to do their jobs more effectively. In some places where political leaders have told their police forces to make enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority, the fact that pot is still technically illegal gives the police the ability to bust people at their own discretion; witness New York City, where tens of thousands of people (mostly black and Hispanic men) are arrested every year for marijuana possession as a result of stop-and-frisk operations, despite the fact that the infraction is only supposed to get you a ticket. But as of now, a cop in Seattle or Denver couldn't arrest you for possession even if she wanted to.

So it will be interesting to see whether in the coming months and years, police and prosecutors in Washington and Colorado report that their jobs have been made easier by the new laws. We may not see the full legal regime many are hoping for, with a fully functioning legal market. But we should have some new evidence that can be weighed when other states are debating their own decriminalization initiatives, which we'll certainly see in 2014.

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