King County Executive Dow Constantine (D) officially released the plan Tuesday as part of his proposed budget for the next two years. He said the funds would be reallocated to helping people vacate past cannabis convictions, clear fines and court fees and pay for community programs such as youth marijuana prevention.
“As my proposed budget took shape, our anti-racism priorities and criminal legal system transformation coalesced around three principles: Divest, invest, and re-imagine,” Constantine said in the budget announcement. “By divest, I mean stopping current practices that cause harm and diverting the savings to serve a greater good.”
Of that money, $2.8 million would go to “a program to help individuals vacate convictions of marijuana–related offenses that are no longer illegal, and settle unpaid court fines, fees, and restitution that could lead to incarceration,” Constantine’s office said. Unlike Seattle, which in 2018 moved to vacate past cannabis convictions automatically, King County and most of the rest of the state still require people to file individual petitions in court.
“Black communities have historically been disproportionately harmed by the nation’s ‘war on drugs,’ and this begins to undo some of that harm,” the budget document says under a section titled, “Becoming an Anti-Racist County.”
“It is a fact that Black communities have suffered and continue to be disproportionately harmed by our nation’s ‘war on drugs,’” Constantine said, “and this begins to undo some of that harm.”
The initiative, which the county executive first floated last week, reportedly took the sheriff’s department by surprise. Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s office initially told the Seattle Times that she was not consulted about the proposed change, although Constantine’s office disputed that claim.
In his remarks Tuesday, Constantine clarified that the proposed budget was the result of close work between his office and the sheriff’s. “They proposed specific cuts, and I accepted them,” he said. He stressed that “the re-direction of marijuana tax revenues that I announced last week does not mean additional cuts—doesn’t mean laying off 30 deputies or cutting 911 service.”
— Girmay Zahilay (@GirmayZahilay) September 17, 2020
One King County Council member, Reagan Dunn (R), has already come out against the proposed cuts to law enforcement, which also include the closure of one of the 12 floors in a county jail in downtown Seattle.
“This is a dangerous approach to public safety and all county residents should be very concerned,” Dunn said in a statement following the budget announcement. “This proposed budget neglects what is possibly the most important and basic job of government: to provide for the safety of our residents who rely on law enforcement during times of crisis.”
Dunn in 2016 led a successful effort to temporarily ban state-legal marijuana businesses from the county. Even one member who voted for the moratorium called it a “blunt instrument that puts the brakes on the industry countywide and is going to cause disruptions in dozens of businesses.”
Supporters of Constantine’s new proposal, meanwhile, include the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Black Lives Matter Seattle–King County (BLMSKC). Constantine’s office said the county executive worked with an array of advocates, community members and county staff to craft the budget proposals.
“This budget demonstrates that the reimagining of our justice system doesn’t require superpowers. It requires will—the will to change power structures. Black activists have been fighting for and examining anti-racist, pro-equity actions with King County for years,” BLMSKC board members said in a statement that called the proposal “a significant step toward the change we know communities want to see.”
“This proposed budget is evidence that our elected leaders can both speak about reckoning with brutal racism and bias,” the group added, “and back those words up with meaningful commitment.”
In Seattle, city leaders are already moving forward with cuts to law enforcement after organized advocacy by community members. On Tuesday afternoon, the City Council proceeded with a plan to cut 100 positions from the Seattle Police Department, voting to override a veto by Mayor Jenny Durkan (D). “I want to be able to tell my daughter, who I am currently holding in my arms, that I did the right thing, that I voted on the right side of history,” said Council President Lorena González (D).
King County isn’t the only jurisdiction rethinking how marijuana tax revenue is being allocated. In June, the Portland City Council approved an amendment to a proposed budget that would divest cannabis funds from the city’s police department.
In Illinois, the government announced in May that $31.5 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales would be going to restorative justice grants that are meant to provide opportunities for “communities impacted by economic disinvestment, violence and the severe and multilayered harm caused by the war on drugs.”
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