Rotary Club Members Applaud Talk about Legalizing Marijuana

Presentation to the Rotary Club of Seattle on March 2, 2011

By Alison Holcomb, Drug Policy Director for the ACLU of Washington

On June 25, 2009, Seattle Rotarians gathered at Holgate and Rainier Avenue South to celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary and the opening of the Rotary Support Center for Families.  Representing the culmination of the Seattle Rotary’s Centennial Project, the $16 million, three-story, 35,000-ft.² facility is the new home of Wellspring Family Services.  Last year, Wellspring served more than 7,000 children, adults and families in King County, providing services addressing the overlapping issues of mental health challenges, domestic violence, and homelessness.

Congratulations, and thank you.  Stabilizing homeless and stressed families has a huge impact on preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders – including substance abuse – among children, youth, and young adults.  A 2009 report published by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine identified several proven, evidence-based prevention strategies that strengthen families and individuals through community- and school-based support and intervention programs, such as:

•     Teaching parenting and communication skills;

•     Helping families with disruptive events like divorce, physical and emotional trauma, parental mental illness and substance abuse, and unemployment; and

•     Improving our schools to promote prosocial environments.

These strategies protect families and individuals from the risk factors that we know contribute most significantly to substance abuse:  stress, separation, poverty, and loss.  What has a proven track record of failing to protect either families or their communities – and a record of actually causing more harm than good – is the War on Drugs.

Last May, the AP ran a ground-breaking piece of investigative journalism that spelled out how U.S. taxpayers have financed a $1 trillion "War on Drugs" that, forty years after its launch, has failed to meet any of its declared goals.  As Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and former Seattle Police Chief put it, “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”  Federal surveys consistently show that illicit drug use rates remain steady while arrest rates skyrocket. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.

The United States is grappling with a crisis of mass incarceration.  While our nation represents just 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of its inmates.  The War on Drugs has been the primary driver of this dramatic increase since 1980; drug offenders now constitute 20 percent of our state prison population and 52 percent of our federal prison population.

Here in Washington, only 140 people were in prison for drug crimes in 1980.  The number increased to more than 2,300 in 2008.  And this figure doesn’t include people locked up in local jails. For example, the average daily population, or “ADP,” of drug offenders in the King County Jail in 2008 was 459, representing 18 percent of the total ADP.  And lest anyone try to tell you that only the “worst of the worst” drug offenders get sentenced to prison, be aware that the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission published a report last year confirming that more than 80 percent of all drug sentences are within the lowest seriousness level, and very few, 3 percent or less, are in the highest.

This level of law enforcement is not cheap. It costs almost $40,000 to keep someone in a Washington prison for one year.  Currently, Washington spends just under $10,000 annually on each public school pupil.  Basic healthcare, prevention and treatment programs, and other crucial social services that provide a safety net for at-risk families, and support healthy and vibrant communities, are having their budgets slashed in the face of our current economic challenges.

Criminal convictions for nonviolent drug offenses also carry long-term consequences that impact an individual long after the sentence is served and contribute to the cycle of poverty, thereby impacting us all.  A conviction can lead to loss of employment and employment opportunities, loss of housing, and loss of federal financial aid for college.  Moreover, drug laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color – our communities that are already struggling to achieve socioeconomic equality.  Here in Washington, an African American is three times as likely to be arrested, three times as likely to be charged, and three times as likely to be convicted for a marijuana offense as a white person, despite the fact that white Washingtonians use marijuana at a higher rate.

And the War on Drugs destroys families.  In 2007, drug offenses represented 42% of the 5,520 jail and prison sentences meted out to women in Washington, constituting the leading category of prison sentences and second leading category of jail sentences, right behind property offenses.  Nationwide, over half of female prisoners have never had a visit from their children; one in three mothers has never spoken with her children by telephone phone while incarcerated.

Government budgets are a zero sum game.  Every dollar spent arresting, prosecuting, and jailing a person for drug use is a dollar that could have been spent on a school, family support services, community development, or basic health care.  And trying to put a family back together after one of its members has been incarcerated and labeled a criminal is much harder and more expensive than the ounce of prevention or even the pound of cure that could have been provided outside the criminal justice system.

Fortunately, today – right now – we are presented with a very real, very concrete opportunity to take a step in a new direction, to test a new approach.  Washington could decide to try treating marijuana like alcohol, regulate it extensively, and direct new tax revenues to basic health care and treatment and prevention services.

Two Sundays ago, the Seattle Times editorial board declared, “Marijuana should be legalized, regulated and taxed.  The push to repeal federal prohibition should come from the states, and it should begin with the state of Washington.”  The message is timely and accurate.  According to a 2010 SurveyUSA poll, 56 percent of Washingtonians think “legalizing marijuana is a good idea.”  Marijuana possession was not a crime in Seattle until the legislature added a state preemption clause to Washington's Uniform Controlled Substances Act in 1989.  We've had a medical marijuana law since 1998. Seattle made adult marijuana use its "lowest law enforcement priority" in 2003.

These political realities reflect principled observations.  The Thursday before its editorial, the Times had published an op-ed by Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes in which he pointed out that, as with alcohol Prohibition, “Marijuana prohibition cannot be and has not been consistently enforced, and keeping it on the books diminishes the people’s respect for law enforcement.”  He’s right. 

In 1991, marijuana arrests comprised 29 percent of all drug arrests nationwide; by 2009, they represented 52 percent of all drug arrests – more than half. And 90 percent of those marijuana arrests were for possession only.  Washington arrest statistics tell a similar story.  In 2009, half of Washington’s 20,000 drug arrests were for simple marijuana possession.

Despite this escalation in marijuana law enforcement, more than 40 percent of all Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives.  Few of us believe we will be caught or that we deserve to go to jail or have a criminal record.  The 760,000 arrests made nationwide for marijuana possession in 2009 represented less than five percent of the 16.7 million Americans who are current marijuana users.  Prohibition isn’t working.

The recognition that now is the time to change our marijuana laws crosses party lines and national borders.  Last September, the Seattle Times published another op-ed by former U.S. Attorney and Bush appointee John McKay.  Mr. McKay pointed out that his colleagues in law enforcement know first-hand that threatening to arrest every marijuana user, grower, and seller as a strategy for deterring people from making unhealthy choices is an untenable proposition.  Moreover, it has created a volatile black market that continues to contribute to record violence and bloodshed happening in Mexico right now.  “In short,” he concluded, “policymakers should strive for a regulatory and criminal scheme like the one guarding that other commodity that failed miserably at prohibition, alcohol.”

Such a proposal is before our state legislators now.  Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson and thirteen cosponsors introduced House Bill 1550 this session, which would make marijuana available to adults 21 and over through our state liquor stores.  Tax revenues would be earmarked for health care, and prevention and treatment services.

The fiscal note for HB 1550 projects savings of $20 million each year in law enforcement costs, plus generation of $170 million in new revenue annually for the Department of Health and the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery within the Department of Social and Health Service.  That’s a lot of mental and physical health care, prevention support, and treatment services for our at-risk families.

Speaker Chopp has agreed that HB 1550 may be heard in Ways & Means, and that is likely to happen mid-March.  Now is the time for you to speak up.

If I had an hour to spend with each of you, I could answer all your individual questions and convince you that speaking out now is the right thing to do – that this is the time for you to add your shoulder to the stone and help us push it past the tipping point.  But today I only have ten minutes.  So I ask you to consider the depth of consideration that John McKay, Pete Holmes, and the Seattle Times editorial board must have given this issue before going on the record with their conclusions.  And I ask you to add your voices to theirs.

Please write to the House Ways & Means Committee members, and to Speaker Chopp, and to the Seattle Times, and let them know you think the Washington legislature should pass HB 1550.  Please talk to your colleagues about other ways you can help move this issue forward.  Or ask me to coffee, and let’s talk about it some more.  It’s time for a new approach.  We can do better.

Thank you.