UPDATE 3:03 p.m. King and Pierce County prosecutors are dismissing more than 220 misdemeanor marijuana cases in response to Tuesday’s vote to decriminalize small amounts of pot.
In King County, 175 cases are being dismissed involving people 21 and older and possession of one ounce or less. I-502 makes one ounce of marijuana legal on Dec. 6, but 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,” Satterberg said in a statement.
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 in court as criminal charges; those charges will be dismissed. Another 135 cases were pending charging decisions and will simply be returned to the arresting police agency.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he was dismissing “about four dozen” pending cases where misdemeanor marijuana was the only offense. He said his staff was continuing to prosecute other cases where possession was secondary to a more serious charge, such as drunken 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.”
In an interview, Satterberg said his office would continue to prosecute marijuana possession above one ounce, allowing for “a buffer for those whose scales are less than accurate.” His office also charges felony possession — for people with more than 40 grams — although he said his staff routinely allows those defendants 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 said.
I-502 campaign manager Alison Holcomb said she was “incredibly moved” by Satterberg’s announcement, which she said showed “incredible courage.”
The decision supports a prime argument I-502 made during the campaign. A study by a group of academics found there had been 241,000 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases in Washington over the past 25 years, 67,000 of them in the past five years. “If 502 hadn’t passed, we’d see the same amount of marijuana possession cases every year,” she said. “What makes a difference is changing the law.”
Satterberg is the first prosecutor to change charging policy after I-502, but other prosecutors are also considering these cases. Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said his office “just starting to work through those issues.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has refused to prosecute misdemeanor possession cases since he took office.
Earlier this week, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Spokane County, Jack Driscoll, appeared to take a more conservative position. He told the Spokesman-Review that, even after Dec. 6, the only marijuana which was legal to possess was pot sold in the state-licensed stores called for in I-502. Those stores 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.”
Holcomb disputed that interpretation. So did Satterberg, who called it a “very narrow reading” of the initiative. “I don’t know how you trace where (the marijuana) comes from,” he said.
Satterberg said he expected federal authorities to seek an injunction to block implementation of I-502’s state licensing scheme for marijuana retailers and growers. “I think it’s the kind of issue the U.S. Supreme Court will have a final word on,” said Satterberg, calling it an “an important state’s rights issue.”
But he does not expect a federal lawsuit to target the types of cases he is dismissing, noting that states already have widely divergent penalties for marijuana possession.