Kirkland Reporter Staff Writer
Only days after a photo surfaced of Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana, television host Rick Steves criticized the press for giving the athlete a hard time.
In his quest to decriminalize marijuana, Steves has criticized local media as well.
The travel writer hosted a televised “infomercial” last year to get viewers thinking about the issue, but local television stations, such as KING, KOMO and KIRO refused to broadcast it or offered 1 a.m. Sunday broadcast times.
“If you care about democracy and it’s considered courageous to talk about a law that is counter-productive, we’ve got problems,” he said.
Co-host with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Drug Policy Director Alison Holcomb, Steves and several other speakers discussed the history of marijuana laws and their effects to a sold-out crowd Feb. 4 at the Kirkland Performance Center.
He took the opportunity to criticize local media companies for failing to foster a dialogue on the issue, claiming the law is more costly than the drug problem. Steves did acknowledge, however, a unique advantage in campaigning for the issue.
“Nobody can fire me, basically,” he said amidst a roar of laughter.
Steves screened the station-censored 30-minute “infomercial,” which was filmed at KOMO’s Seattle studios, detailing marijuana’s emergence as a controlled substance after the U.S. prohibition on alcohol was lifted.
Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimates that the state could save $7.6 million a year if the law were changed, based on the 11,553 misdemeanor arrests made in 2007. The heavy influx, said local attorney Ken Davidson of Davison, Czeisler and Kilpatric, could be clogging up the courts. He asked the panel of speakers if using the criminal justice system was an appropriate method to control the drug.
“To file a lawsuit with Superior Court, your trial date is 18 months off,” Davidson noted. “Justice delayed is often justice denied.”
Steves and others also said the mandatory jail time for misdemeanor possession was in part prompting the need for a proposed regional jail, which may be built in the Kingsgate area. According to a 2006 Jail Action Group (JAG) study, about 3 percent of King County misdemeanor inmates were jailed on drug-related charges.
Speaking after Steves, State Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) - who once served as director of the King County Bar Association’s Drug Policy Initiative - supports a full legalization of regulated quantities of marijuana as a “soft” drug.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said of legislative efforts to decriminalize marijuana, including his work with national bar associations, urging them to set up task forces. “Let’s not lock people up so much, let’s provide more treatment opportunities for those who are in trouble. And frankly, let’s leave a bunch of people alone.”
Retired Whatcom Superior Court Judge David Nichols and Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata also spoke at the event.
Steves urged the audience to contact their local legislators and councilmembers and talk to them about the issue.
“If I can inspire you to talk about marijuana in polite company, we’re all going to get somewhere,” he said.
Seated in the audience next to Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend and several Issaquah Councilmembers, Deputy Mayor Joan McBride said she was surprised by some of the presentation’s claims, such as the stiff penalties for posession. Possession of 40 grams of marijuana (a little over an ounce) or less in Washington state is a misdemeanor offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one day in jail and a fine of $250 for the first offense. Any amount over that is a felony, which could result in up to a 5-year jail term and a $10,000 fine.
“I’m information gathering right now,” McBride said. “I just put in a call to the chief of police and would like to sit down and talk to him.”
In the state legislature, legislation on decriminalizing marijauna is working its way through both the house and senate. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) introduced a bill scheduled for a committee hearing this week. The proposed change would reclassify possession of 40 grams of marijuana or less to a civil infraction.
The city's chief legal adviser, City Attorney Robin Jenkinson, said she had not studied the possibility of changing enforcement of state marijuana regulations or how changes at the state level would affect the city. In September 2003, Seattle voters passed an initiative to relax enforcement of marijuana possession laws, making it the department's lowest priority. Jenkinson declined to comment on whether such an initiative would be workable for Kirkland.
"It's not an area I've reviewed or have been asked about," she said.
On the enforcement side, Kirkland Police Chief Eric Olsen declined to comment on how local authorities enforce marijuana posession, but authorized Lt. Bradley Gilmore to speak on the department's behalf.
"We haven't noticed an upswing" of illegal marijuana use, Gilmore said. "Nothing out of the ordinary."
The KPD made over 200 arrests for marijuana possession last year, making up the majority of local misdemeanor drug arrests. Police have also assigned a detective to serve full-time with the Eastside Drug Task Force (ENTF), a regional drug enforcement initiative started in 1981 and based in Bellevue.
"We go strictly by state law," Gilmore said.
When asked last year during an interview with the Kirkland Reporter about the department's top priorities, Chief Olsen did not mention drug enforcement.
Light up the marijuana conversation
Contact Rep. Roger Goodman of Kirkland’s 45th Legislative District by sending him a letter to: 320 John L. O’Brien Building, PO Box 40600, Olympia, WA 98504-0600 or by calling him at 360-786-7878. You can also find him online on his official Legislative Web page.
*This version corrects the support for the production of both the un-aired informercial and the "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation" program, both funded by the ACLU.