Power Lines

Why Is Our Pro-Pot City Attorney Cracking Down on Marijuana Delivery?

It's the war on drugs...to save drugs.

By Josh Feit May 23, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Illustration: Daniel Fishel

On a Friday night in April, I broke the law. After a quick online search, I dialed a number. No one answered, but less than a minute later, a text appeared. “Hello how may i help you today?”

“Delivery?” I typed coyly. 

And we were off, texting back and forth—me in my apartment and Seattle’s Best Cannabis Delivery on the other end.

“Ok and what were you interested in ordering?”

“Mellow. Sleepy. 8th,” I suggested, not sure exactly what I could say.

“Ok i do have a lavender that is a nice indica what is your address?” 

I texted my address, and the deal was on: “So for our top shelf 4g is 48 and would round that to 50 for our minimum and eta would be about 45 min and yeah i can have the driver text you.” 

About half an hour later, the driver texted: “Ok so i double parked can you come to my car? I’m right across the street.” 

There he was in a silver beater. I got in on the car’s passenger side. It was like 1975 in there. KZOK classic rock played on the radio and “James,” a tall white guy, mid-20s with a tawny, scruffy beard, wore jeans and a floppy, brown leather cowboy hat. I handed him the cash; he handed me a brown paper bag and said I should call anytime. “There’s a complimentary joint in there,” he said, “you get one with every delivery.” 

Inside was a small, stapled plastic bag with a skinny joint and a purple-and-blue business card featuring Velma and Daphne from Scooby-Doo smoking inside a cloudy van. “Crack a window,” the caption read. “Shaggy’s weed is too dank.” The 10 huge buds I’d bought filled a Ziploc baggie, Sharpied helpfully with the labels 4g and Lavender

I went back up to my apartment to get high.

* * *  

About 10 days before I ordered that Lavender indica (for the record, it wasn’t mellow), the city staged its first crackdown on pot deliveries. Although buying an ounce of pot at licensed stores has been legal in Washington state since 2014 (as mandated by 2012’s I-502 vote), delivery is verboten. And so on April 5, the city arrested eight different “runners” during a buy bust operation out of a North Northgate Way motel. Choosing from the estimated 31 illegal delivery services in the city (as opposed to the 31 legal walk-in stores), the undercover detectives simply placed calls and ordered, just as I had done. Each arrest, seven men and one woman, went “without incident,” according to the police reports. (One of the delivery guys was also found carrying nine OxyContin pills.) 

Ironically the job of cracking down on illegal pot sales falls on someone who’s spent his last six and a half years in office working against the War on Drugs and small-time pot busts: city attorney Pete Holmes. That’s because delivery services threaten to topple Holmes’s legacy: the legalized pot market. 

Courtesy seattle city council gr8jvy

City of Seattle attorney Pete Holmes.


Image: Courtesy Seattle City Council

A short, trim, and fit 60-year-old who looks more like a tweedy college professor than a city attorney, Holmes unseated incumbent tough guy Tom Carr in 2009 and ushered in the modern era of marijuana by reversing Carr’s policy of prosecuting pot busts. 

In February 2010, immediately after taking office, with “a radically different way of dealing with misdemeanor possession than his predecessor,” his spokesperson Kimberly Mills notes, Holmes announced he had asked the Seattle Municipal Court to dismiss charges in some 25 marijuana possession cases filed by Carr. He also declined to accept the 26 new marijuana possession cases sent to his office by the Seattle Police Department. And he instructed his attorneys to dismiss the marijuana possession charges in 30 additional pending cases where pot possession was part of a larger charge. 

Holmes was following the will of Seattle’s electorate, which had passed I-75—mandating pot possession arrests as the lowest priority for SPD—in 2003. Carr, voters clearly felt, hadn’t honored that pro-pot position. Holmes’s cannabis sympathies went further, though. 

Alison Holcomb, the ACLU’s in-house pot legalization campaigner, recalls Holmes’s help in drafting I-502: “In 2011 legalization was not the foregone conclusion some may feel it is today. Backing I-502 was a risk for him, and both the campaign and the movement benefited enormously from his credibility.” 

Part of that commitment to changing the legal landscape had to do with Holmes’s realization that the drug war was disproportionately affecting African Americans. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s landmark investigative book documenting racism in America’s criminal justice system, had a huge impact on him. “His focus on marijuana legalization came from disgust and anger over the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color for drug offenses—a great majority of them for small amounts of marijuana,” Mills says. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. For example, African Americans comprise only 14 percent of regular drug users, but make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.

The bottom line, according to Holmes: Arresting people hasn’t been effective anyway. “Prohibition did nothing,” he says. “A 14-year-old could get a bag of pot in Seattle more quickly than a six pack of beer before 502.”

* * *

Illegal delivery services, say their competitors—the owners of legal stores—traffic in unregulated, low-quality, high-chemical weed. “Full of fertilizer,” one shop owner surmised when I told him about my nonmellow high.

They also increase the likelihood that minors will get their hands on pot, sap public revenue (at last count $251 million came in over the last two years of legal activity to help fund health services), and undercut legal business, which the city wants to expand by licensing 19 more stores while closing down the 60 remaining medical stores. 

Neither the city nor the legal industry knows how much money illegal delivery operations are making (the theory is that they’re bringing carloads of weed up from California), but with 31 outlets, you’d have to be stoned to think it isn’t hurting the 31 legit businesses.

And so April’s drug busts were actually about protecting legal drug use. “This is the one area,” Holmes explains, “where it’s appropriate to wield police power. This activity is harming the legal industry. It [was] a very surgical application. And it’s to discourage illegal operators while we get our regulatory act together and prevent further harm to the licensed retailers.”

Legal businesses must to pay a 37 percent special excise tax, plus the regular 10 percent sales tax. Logan Bowers, chair of the local trade group Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments (CORE) and owner of Fremont pot shop Hashtag, says he also pays federal income tax, which, unlike other Washington state businesses, is calculated off revenues and not profits. Marijuana retailers, he adds, are often startled on April 15 to discover their tax liabilities outweigh their profits. Illegal pot dealers don’t pay those taxes at all. 

CORE opposes a legislative proposal Holmes and the city pitched in Olympia earlier this year to authorize a pilot delivery project. The plan would have allowed five stores to test it out. (It was the best way to ease nervous legislators into the idea that legal delivery wouldn’t make pot more pervasive for minors, city lobbyists say.) But only allowing some stores to participate, CORE believed, would unfairly create winners and losers. They prefer a co-op model that would allow legal shops to share a driver. The city plans to work with retailers to craft a new delivery model next year, Holmes says.

Because, ultimately, despite the big busts last month, Holmes believes legalizing delivery is the only way to save the legal stores. 

After all, the sting didn’t appear to have much impact on the black market. According to the police report, one of the eight delivery people who got arrested for selling $160 worth of weed to an undercover cop worked for Seattle’s Best Cannabis Delivery, the same service that was more than happy to send a driver to my house just a week later. 

“Instead of sending cops out to do these ineffective busts,” says Holmes, “we want to use the marketplace to do it and make it really difficult for the guy who doesn’t give a rip how old you are or what they’re selling. We want that guy to be put out of business, not by cops breaking down doors, but by the marketplace.”

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