Sheriff attacks 'War on Drugs', will testify to Congress next week

SEATTLE -- King County’s chief law enforcement officer, Sheriff John Urquhart, is an outspoken critic of the "War on Drugs.”  Indeed, he was one of the few sheriffs or police chiefs who supported the state's legalization of marijuana last year.

As pot stores get closer to opening here in the state, Urquhart said his department will now be able to turn its attention to things other than busting pot smokers.

“We’ve incarcerated our citizens at a rate that no other country in the world can come close to on a per-capita basis,” Urquhart said.  “Yet we still have demand for drugs.”

Urquhart said relaxing pot laws are an important first step, though he doesn’t support legalization for all drugs.

Urquhart’s views come from over 30 years in law enforcement, including 12 years as a narcotics investigator.

“If I had a dollar for every person I took to jail that begged me, begged me, to get them into a treatment program, I’d be rich,” he said.  “The money isn’t there.”

Urquhart believes that taxing and regulating pot will bring it out of the black market and, just as important, out of the gray medical marijuana market, which he believes needs to be reined in.

“It’s totally out of hand,” he said of the many dispensaries that have emerged in recent years. “They’re a sham. They’re a farce, in some cases, obviously.  They’re a front for marijuana, and that’s not right.”

Urquhart was pleased when the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t interfere with Washington state's new pot law.  But he plans to tell lawmakers in Congress next week that more needs to be done on their end if this “great experiment” is going to succeed.  He’s set to testify on Sept. 10 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The biggest issue that’s going to come up is the banking,” he said.  “Under federal law, banks cannot open up checking accounts, savings accounts, credit card accounts for retailers or wholesalers that are selling marijuana, which means we have a cash business here in King County.”

Urquhart argued that will make those businesses a “target” for robbers.  “They need to be able to put their money in a bank,” he said.

Urquhart promised it won’t be a free-for-all when pot stores start opening next year.  Police will strictly enforce the provisions of Initiative 502.  Those includes no driving while being stoned, and no lighting up outside.

“I’ve instructed my deputies you will cite for smoking marijuana in public,” he said.  “I don’t care where it is, you will do that.  Because the citizens, again, have spoken, they want that illegal.”

Urquhart knows that the stakes are high and that critics and supporters alike are eager to see how this whole thing works out.

“We have to do it right,” he said.