by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) There is a legal showdown brewing between the federal government and two states whose residents voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana earlier this month, as local prosecutors in one of those states – Washington – have already begun dismissing hundreds of cases involving persons who were caught with the illegal substance prior to Election Day.
Prosecutors in King County – which includes the cities of Seattle and Bellevue – and Pierce County, directly to the south, have dismissed more than 220 misdemeanor pot cases following voter approval Nov. 6 of Initiative 502, or I-502, which makes possession of one ounce of marijuana legal after Dec. 6. Though technically the law does not take effect for a couple more weeks, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg decided to apply I-502 retroactively.
“Although the effective date of I-502 is not until December 6, there is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month,” he said in a statement.
Local papers said the dismissed cases involved arrests in unincorporated King County, as well as the state highways and the University of Washington. About 40 of the cases had already been filed as criminal charges but those will be dismissed. Another 135 were pending charging decisions; they will now be returned to the arresting police agency, the Seattle Times said.
‘The people have spoken’
Meanwhile, in Pierce County, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he was dismissing “about four dozen” cases involving misdemeanor possession of pot as the only offense. He said his office would continue to prosecute cases where marijuana possession was a secondary offense to a more serious charge, like drunk driving.
“The people have spoken through this initiative,” said Lindquist. “And as a practical matter, I don’t think you could sell a simple marijuana case to a jury after this initiative passed.”
Satterberg told the Times his office will continue prosecuting marijuana possession cases above the one ounce limit, which will allow for “a buffer for those whose scales are less than accurate.”
He said he routinely allows his staff to let defendants who were initially charged with felony pot possession – those who are caught with more than 40 grams – to plead down to a misdemeanor.
“I think when the people voted to change the policy, they weren’t focused on when the effective date of the new policy would be. They spoke loudly and clearly that we should not treat small amounts of marijuana as an offense,” he told the paper.
The campaign manager for I-502, Alison Holcomb, said she was “incredibly moved” by Satterberg’s decision, adding he showed “incredible courage.”
A study conducted by a group of academics found that in the state of Washington there had been 241,000 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases over the past 25 years, with 67,000 of them in the past five years alone.
“If 502 hadn’t passed,” said Holcomb, “we’d see the same amount of marijuana possession cases every year. What makes a difference is changing the law.”
I-502 campaign manager Alison Holcomb said she was “incredibly moved” by Satterberg’s announcement, which she said showed “incredible courage.”
Satterberg is the first county prosecutor to change his agency’s charging policy in the wake of 502’s passage, but other prosecutors are considering similar changes as well.
Tom McBride, of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told the Times his office was “just starting to work through those issues.”
City of Seattle Attorney Pete Holmes, meanwhile, has never prosecuted misdemeanor possession cases since taking office.
Will Washington continue to pick sides in state legal issues?
Not all prosecutors are taking such a lax approach. Spokane County prosecutor Jack Driscoll told the Spokesman-Review newspaper that, even after the Dec. 6 date, the only marijuana that could be possessed legally would have to come from state-licensed stores called for in I-502, and those won’t be created for at least a year.
“The only thing that is legal is selling marijuana through those stores,” Driscoll said. “That will be regulated by the state. You can’t under this initiative have an ounce of marijuana that doesn’t come from a state-issued provider. You still can’t have black-market marijuana.”
At the moment, possession of, or use of, marijuana remains against federal law, so the passage of I-502 and a similar measure in Colorado sets these states up for a legal clash with the U.S. Justice Department.
It wasn’t clear yet whether the Obama administration would make the initiatives as much of an issue as, say, suing the state of Arizona over its recent immigration reform law (which was modeled after federal law) or going after several other states whose citizens passed initiatives like the one in Washington that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
That’s the trouble with picking sides in legal issues; justice is no longer blind.