by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Clallam County Prosecutor Deb Kelly says she soon will dismiss all possession of marijuana cases now on the books.
Other prosecutors throughout the state have made the same decision, including King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who last week said he would dismiss more than 175 cases.
Like Satterberg, Kelly said her decision is based on the recent approval by Washington voters of Initiative 502, which legalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
Pointing to the vote, Kelly said, “The majority of the people in this state don’t want to see us expending money on these cases.”
She also noted that the impact of her decision will have little impact. “We only have five open cases,” she said, “and maybe a couple of citations outstanding.”
She added that she doesn’t expect the new law will have the dramatic impact on the justice system that many anticipated.
“It won’t empty jails or prisons and I’m highly skeptical it will produce the anticipated revenues,” she said.
She agreed it will lead to fewer crimes, pointing out that her decision will remove five cases from District Court.
But, she added, “There is this myth — the average citizen believes we’re spending tons on enforcement, prosecutions and incarcerations of marijuana possession.”
“Are there huge numbers? No.”
Narcotics Team Supervisor Jason Viada, a spokesman for the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team (OPNET), said the passage of 502 will have “almost no impact” on the way his team works.
For the past several years, OPNET’s focus has been on hard drugs — cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin — with a secondary emphasis on prescription drugs with a potential for abuse.
Viada said since he signed on with OPNET in July 2011 they have been involved in just one case of marijuana possession. OPNET participated in that investigation because their assistance was requested by another agency, he said.
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys recently provided statistics on marijuana convictions, saying of the roughly 18,500 offenders in prison confinement “somewhere north of 1,770 are in for drug crimes. Of these 1,770, marijuana accounts for 41 and those are mostly traffickers.”
There were just four simple possession cases. They “are likely really career criminal sentences, with lots of priors. The sentence is more about recidivism than marijuana.”
The association’s comments conclude, “Decriminalization of marijuana may have cost savings associated with policing/investigations, and perhaps courts, but it will not generate significant confinement savings.”
Not a good idea?
Kelly also provided her thoughts on marijuana, saying, she doesn’t “buy into the concept that it’s inexorably a gateway drug.”
“Is it a good idea to use it?” she asked. “No.”
Kelly said in the 32 years she’s spent in the justice system, she’s seen the emotional and physical toll drugs take on users.
“With marijuana social maturity stops. And there are sometimes nasty consequences to (the user) and their family.”
But the world isn’t going to end, she said.
Kelly said that while Clallam County is sometimes a gateway for the movement of marijuana, including “B.C. bud,” it’s more likely that most of the marijuana is home-grown.
She said prosecuting those growing it already has become more difficult in recent years due to the state’s medical marijuana laws, which allow patients to grow their own.
Kelly also noted that the new law refers to “usable marijuana.”
“That means bud,” she said.
Formerly the law referred simply to marijuana, but “now we have to test it for THC content.” THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
“I don’t know if the state lab is set up to test strength,” she said. “That’s something they haven’t had to do.”
“It was either marijuana or it wasn’t.”
“My suspicion is that you won’t be able to prosecute any relatively small amount,” she said.
Kelly also noted that marijuana possession still is unlawful under federal law. The new Washington law allows licensed growers to produce marijuana, but signing up for the program puts a grower squarely in the sights of federal officials, she noted.
How the Obama administration will enforce the federal law remains an open question, Kelly said.
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.