Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Adam Cornell testifies before the state Senate Ways and Means Committee in Olympia on Feb. 27, 2018. (Washington Legislature)

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Adam Cornell testifies before the state Senate Ways and Means Committee in Olympia on Feb. 27, 2018. (Washington Legislature)

Word’s out: A small drug stash can keep you out of trouble

Prosecutor wrestles with policy to avoid simple possession cases, but lacks staff to pursue them.

EVERETT — One man shrugged off the meth he was carrying last year, telling a Marysville police officer he’d be fine.

After all, it was less than 2 grams.

Another man detained by Mukilteo police asked if they could make his meth disappear — or at least make it weigh less than 2 grams.

The magic number has turned up over and over again as local police and sheriff’s deputies have interacted with criminal suspects, according to arrest reports. And it appears to be influencing standard practice for drug dealers. As one cop in Everett noted, carrying smaller amounts of drugs not only lessens the chance of being robbed — it helps avoid prosecution.

Word’s out on the street: Authorities in Snohomish County aren’t charging felony possession cases involving less than 2 grams of controlled substances such as meth, heroin and cocaine.

That’s left County Prosecutor Adam Cornell in a quandary. His predecessor, Mark Roe, set the 2-gram limit in February 2018. The idea was to keep his deputy prosecutors focused on more violent, dangerous crimes. Take on rapes, robberies and domestic violence before worrying about low-level drug users, the thinking went.

Cornell understood the logic. But since taking office this year as the county’s elected prosecutor, he’s wondered whether the community would be better-served by pursuing some of those smaller drug cases. With more leeway, his office could refer some people to treatment or other forms of assistance at a less-advanced stage of their addiction. They could punish others who don’t want to change.

“I think we can exercise our discretion in a thoughtful, compassionate way that ensures accountability,” Cornell said. “We’re talking about a more thoughtful, tailored approach to criminal justice.”

Snohomish County isn’t alone in declining to prosecute for small amounts of drugs. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg took the same step, but set the limit at 1 gram — half of Snohomish County’s. King County’s policy took effect in September.

A gram or two might not seem like much. A couple of grams of heroin or meth, however, is enough to satisfy the typical daily intake of several addicts. It’s unlikely someone would roam the streets with that kind of quantity for personal use.

For Cornell, reversing the policy isn’t a simple decision. He has a plan all worked out — but not the money.

“This is largely a resource issue,” he said.

To resume prosecuting for smaller amounts of drugs, Cornell estimated it would cost his office about $365,000 to hire two attorneys, a legal secretary and a diversion counselor. It’s part of what he calls the Innovative Justice Initiative, which would look at alternative prosecution options that focus on treating addiction and mental health. Cornell also has suggested using current available dollars to start up the program, if county leaders can assure funding for the coming years.

The expenses won’t stop with Cornell’s staff, though. More drug prosecutions are likely to add costs for public defenders, the court system and the jail.

At the same time, his deputy prosecutors are seeing more violent crimes reach their desks. If current trends continue through 2019, he expects referrals for violent crimes to increase by 25 percent over last year.

Some legal insiders think reversing Snohomish County’s current drug policy is a bad idea. Some attorneys on the other side of the courtroom consider low-level drug prosecutions as a wasteful, ineffective way to deal with addiction or public safety.

“Holding the most vulnerable accountable without first investing in stability and wellness, we’re just re-creating the problems we had in the 1990s or the early aughts,” said Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. “It’s just a huge cost, to what end? A deputy prosecuting attorney doesn’t cure drug addiction.”

Neither, she said, can a defense attorney or any other lawyer.

“Are we spending our dollars where our values are?” she asked.

Kyle commended Cornell for expanding diversion programs, but said more are needed.

From where Kyle stands, the 2-gram policy has reduced costs for the criminal justice system. It’s at least partly responsible for reduced staffing in her office, based on caseload. Fewer felony drug arrests are bound to reduce incarceration costs, she said, especially since they tend to involve a sicker population whose medical care will become the jail’s responsibility.

Everett police Chief Dan Templeman has a slightly different view from the public defender’s.

“I totally get that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” Templeman said.

Yet officers in his department and elsewhere are chafing at the county’s 2-gram policy.

“There’s clearly been frustration among the officers on the street with the loss of one of their tools that they’d use to combat some of the street-level drug use that we’ve been confronting,” he said. “Oftentimes, it’s the threat of a charge that will motivate someone who is using drugs to seek the help that they need. If we’re trying to break the cycle of addiction to get these people help, losing this tool, this ability to charge, doesn’t always work in our favor.”

For Everett’s police chief, diversion programs are the key to the whole discussion.

“Arrest and prosecution alone is not the most effective solution,” he said. “While I would support some more flexibility in this policy that’s been adopted, I also understand that we need to be looking at some bigger-picture solutions as well.”

Without the ability to pursue felony drug cases, Everett and other cities are seeing an increase in misdemeanor prosecutions for drug paraphernalia.

Cornell remains in a bind, with a law on the books he can’t effectively prosecute. The 2-gram policy, he noted, has proven unpopular in many quarters.

“Mayors, city council members, law enforcement leaders, members of my office, and citizens have asked for a change,” he wrote in a May 1 memo to the County Council and County Executive Dave Somers.

In a May 14 follow-up letter to elected county leaders, Cornell said he’d like to change the policy, but won’t go it alone.

“As much as I would like to reverse the policy now, it would be irresponsible to do so given my prosecution priorities,” he wrote. “Instead, I plan to advocate through the normal 2020 budget process to allow sufficient time to build support and goodwill among stakeholders and the public.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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