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Seattle Times coverage of pot policy, culture and lifestyle.

July 23, 2014 at 11:02 AM

Blacks disproportionately fined for public pot use

Blacks were disproportionately cited by Seattle police for consuming pot in public in the first six months of 2014.

In a report required by the City Council, the police department said officers wrote 82 tickets for public pot consumption in the first half of the year, with 37 percent of those going to to black people.

Blacks account for 8 percent of the Seattle population, according to 2010 census figures; 50 percent of the tickets went to whites, who represent 70 percent of the city’s residents.

Racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws is one of the chief arguments used by advocates for legalizing pot. A national study by the ACLU found that 3.7 blacks were arrested for every white on pot charges. Survey data from the U.S. Public Health Service shows that blacks and whites consume pot at nearly the same rates; in 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using pot in the previous year.

The police study found that 99 percent of all public-use tickets were issued for infractions in the West Precinct, primarily in Victor Steinbrueck Park, Westlake Park, Occidental Park and downtown streets. The tickets come with a $27 fine. Just 6 percent of the 82 fines have been paid, according to police.

Overall, women accounted for just 11 percent of the citations; 41 percent of all people who received tickets lived in low-income housing, shelters, motels, or vacant lots.  People cited ranged in age from 18 to 77, according to police.

Police will continue to collect data through 2015 as required by the council. A “robust analysis of the social justice implications” of citations “will not be available until that time,” wrote Assistant Chief Mike Washburn in a memo today to Council President Tim Burgess.

“While the sample size is small, it does indicate trends for race and homelessness we should continue to monitor,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes and City Council member Nick Licata in a joint statement. They also said the report “shows the need for places where people can legally consume marijuana in Seattle.”

The real issue is who police are likely  to contact in  downtown public spaces for violating the law, said Loren Atherley, a Seattle Police Department criminologist and co-author of Wednesday’s report. “I think what these results mean is we don’t know and that’s something we need to determine,” Atherley said.

Even after the passage of Initiative 502, which legalized weed in Washington in 2012, data still showed blacks were three times as likely to be arrested statewide for pot possession as whites, according to Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington.  “It is unfortunate but not terribly surprising that we’re still seeing disproportionate numbers in public infraction tickets,” said Holcomb, chief author of I-502. “And it’s clear we still have work to do with respect to public education and addressing the causes of the racially disproportionate data we contintue to see in our policing.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: Alison Holcomb, i-502, marijuana


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