The American Civil Liberties Union says law and justice agencies in Whatcom County spent $7.2 million from 2001 to 2010 to enforce and prosecute marijuana laws. But longtime county Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran questioned the accuracy of the study, saying the number is almost certainly too high.
ACLU of Washington's estimates come two months before Washington voters will decide whether to approve Initiative 502, which would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older, require licenses of growers and sellers, and impose a 25 percent sales tax. The ACLU supports the initiative, but the study was not intended to promote I-502, said ACLU policy advocate Mark Cooke.
One argument among proponents of the initiative is that money spent pursuing, convicting and jailing marijuana users and sellers would be better spent elsewhere.
McEachran said his office isn't overburdened with marijuana cases, and said the ACLU figure, which includes $1.4 million for prosecutions, is suspect.
"That would be the wildest guess you could ever make. That sounds very high,' McEachran said. "I don't conceive how anybody can do that (calculation) without looking at each individual case."
The ACLU study, originally a 2012 master's thesis from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs, doesn't look at individual cases. It excludes felonies because they are listed as general drug offenses and it's not immediately apparent whether marijuana was the drug involved. The study also doesn't include arrests by the Washington State Patrol, which aren't recorded by county, or cases under the federal Department of Justice.
The dollar figure for Whatcom County would be significantly higher if federal cases were included, Cooke said, due to drug seizures at the Canadian border.
"This is our best guess and a conservative estimate of what counties are spending," he said.
Some of those larger cases might have contributed significantly to Whatcom's $7.2 million total in the early part of the study period. The federal government was handling those cases, but then backed away from them 10 or 12 years ago, leaving the county prosecutor to seek convictions on major seizures, McEachran said. In one case, the feds left the county to prosecute a defendant accused of transporting one ton of marijuana, he said.
The border cases have subsided since then.
"We really have not seen many of those cases for the last two or three years," McEachran said.
Also, the Department of Justice has been more willing recently to take on the bulk-quantity cases, he said.
It's not likely that misdemeanor arrests of people holding just enough marijuana for personal use contributed much to Whatcom's total, considering numbers provided recently by Sheriff Bill Elfo.
"I think in the last eight years there's been nine people booked into jail for simple possession of marijuana," Elfo said in an Aug. 16 interview. "It's not a very high priority given the other demands that we have."
The ACLU recognizes the limitations of its estimates, but says the data, displayed on an interactive website map, are useful measures of the price of enforcing marijuana laws. Costs are separated into arrests, courts, prosecution, defense, jail and supervision.
The statewide total for 2001-10 was $211 million, according to the ACLU. Whatcom ranked seventh among the 39 counties. Whatcom ranks ninth in population, according to 2012 state estimates.
ACLU map of marijuana costs: aclu-wa.org/blog/mjmap.
How costs were calculated: aclu-wa.org/method.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2266.