SEATTLE, WA — Prosecutors in Washington’s two largest counties announced Friday that they are dropping hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases that will fall under the legalization guidelines that will go into effect December 6, following Washington’s historic vote Tuesday that legalized possession of marijuana for adults 21 and older.
King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg said his office is dropping 175 cases involving people 21 and older and possession of one ounce or less. Although the law doesn’t take effect until December 6, his office has decided to apply I-502 retroactively, saying it is the right thing to do in light of Tuesday’s vote.
“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.
Satterberg has jurisdiction over unincorporated King County, as well as cases on state highways and at the University of Washington. In Seattle itself, which has had a lowest law enforcement priority police in place for nearly a decade, City Attorney Pete Holmes has had a standing policy of refusing to prosecute simple possession cases.
In neighboring Pierce County, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he was dismissing around four dozen pending cases that involved marijuana possession as the only offense. In cases where other more serious charges were filed as well, defendants will have to await their day in court to see what – if any – action will be taken for the marijuana offenses.
“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.”
Although prosecutors in King and Pierce counties are proactively following the will of the voters, not everyone has taken the same approach. Across the state in Spokane County, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor Jack Driscoll sees things in a different light.
“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.”
Satterberg disagrees, however, calling Driscoll’s interpretation a “very narrow reading” of the voter-approved initiative. “I don’t know how you trace where (the marijuana) comes from,” he said, adding that it is likely that federal authorities will attempt to seek an injunction blocking 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,” he said, calling it an “an important state’s rights issue.”
Sattersberg concluded by saying that it is unlikely that there will be any federal intervention in the misdemeanor cases he is dismissing, noting that states already have widely divergent penalties for marijuana possession.
For those who are charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in other counties that have yet to make decisions on how, or if, to proceed, criminal defense experts are saying two words: jury nullification.
Jury nullification occurs when a jury reaches a verdict contrary to the weight of evidence, acquitting people who are technically guilty under the law but do not deserve punishment.
“If you are ever on a jury in a marijuana case, I recommend that you vote “not guilty” — even if you think the defendant actually smoked pot, or sold it to another consenting adult,” says New York Times legal analyst Paul Butler. “As a juror, you have this power under the Bill of Rights; if you exercise it, you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.”