Pete Holmes ’78

Pete HolmesIt’s been a minute since our last alumni profile. The purpose of these has been to keep the mission-driven spark of curiosity alive from our college days, and to build some community around the good work that you all do. Earlier this month we caught up with Pete Holmes ’78, City Attorney for the City of Seattle.

Here, Pete talks about navigating uncharted waters in the fight back against the War on Drugs, and staying proactive rather than reactive in politically tumultuous times. He also shares some tips for Yalies less accustomed to political involvement. Click here for past profiles and, as always, please send us tips on fellow alumni to profile—especially lesser-known or younger alumni who are asking interesting questions.

Describe something you’re currently involved in that’s meaningful to you.

Something meaningful I’m currently involved in—and not the full-bore reactive mode we’ve been in ever since the January 20 Inauguration—is helping Washington’s regulated marijuana system to come to full maturation.

When I-502 defied expectations and was passed by voters by double-digits in 2012, there were many unknowns. We were truly plowing new ground, trying to find alternatives to our country’s ruinous War on Drugs of the past 4+ decades. Getting that message out and achieving legalization, as we expected, was just the start of this state’s democratic experiment in overhauling fundamental public policy with respect to the criminal justice system—more specifically, finding our way back to a public health approach to the problem of drug abuse instead of prohibition through criminal law enforcement.

First on the agenda was to integrate the preexisting, thoroughly confusing Medical Use of Cannabis Act (MUCA) into the new 502 regulatory framework. (I-502 did nothing to touch MUCA.) It took the Legislature a year longer than hoped to achieve that, but once they did, a lot of the naysayers were shocked to learn that I and most if not all of my elected colleagues never had any desire to turn Seattle into another Amsterdam, that we truly wanted to REGULATE marijuana, lessen youth access, address quality of life issues and inflict serious injury to the illicit drug industry. I had issued a comprehensive legal memo in January 2015 to address the important gaps, and when the Legislature followed most of those recommendations, we were able to close all 120 unlicensed marijuana dispensaries in Seattle by July 1, 2015 without a single arrest. And although I have always refused to prosecute marijuana possession charges, when the Seattle Police Department (SPD) arrested 8 commercial—and illegal—marijuana delivery service couriers—I filed criminal charges against all eight defendants. Criminal sanctions only make sense when applied to reinforce a comprehensive regulatory system. And part of this philosophy of changing our default setting for every urban problem away from “call 9-1-1” is imbodied in my office’s new Regulatory Enforcement & Economic Justice Section (REEJ) in my Civil Division. REEJ worked with code compliance officers to close those 120 dispensaries through civil legal process without a single criminal arrest/prosecution.

Sooo. We still need to provide a legal pathway for adults who don’t own private homes to be able to consume marijuana out of the public view. That’s not only a social justice issue, it will aid development of marijuana tourism if we legalize and regulate marijuana consumption lounges. We need to legalize and regulate delivery services. We need to expedite vacating of pre-I-502 possession convictions to clean up criminal records. We need to make the UW or WSU (or both) into cannabis research centers, perhaps applying for one of the promised new federal licenses to produce research marijuana. And we need to restore funding for public education, research and treatment for drug dependencies. We’re trying to make progress on these fronts right now in the current Legislature in Olympia.

That’s meaningful work, admittedly made complicated by the incoming Administration. There are many other projects like police reform, affordable housing; just let me know what you’d like to discuss.

Back in 2013, at our summer picnic, you’d cited institutional racism, as detailed in books such as The New Jim Crow, as your inspiration for refusing to prosecute marijuana possession charges, and for your sponsorship of I-502. Could you talk about other ways in which awareness of institutional racism informs your work?

It’s essentially City policy, since the Nickels administration, that I thoroughly embraced upon taking office in 2010: Seattle’s Race & Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). I was shocked to learn that no one in the Law Department had taken the RSJI training that’s offered by the Office of Civil Rights. By the end of the first quarter of my first year in office, everyone in the Law Department had taken the RSJI training. You can get more detailed information here about Seattle’s Race & Social Justice Initiative: We have an active RSJI change team, and it informs everything our offices does. All professional staff are evaluated in part on their RSJI work, in fact—also a new policy I implemented upon taking office.

You mentioned the full-bore reactive mode we’ve been in lately. How do you balance long-term priorities such as police reform, affordable housing, and marijuana regulation with these urgent new fires that continue to crop up?

Imperfectly at best. The Attorney General designee, Jeff Sessions, hasn’t been confirmed yet (they need his vote as a Senator to help confirm Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary), and his policies could have a direct and lasting impact on both police drug policy reform—especially the latter. While candidate Trump has said some moderate things like leaving marijuana policy “to the states”, he has also pointed to “concerns” over Colorado’s experiment in particular. When you look at Sessions’ old hard line approach to dealing with drug abuse as a criminal rather than public health matter, there is great cause for concern that our breakthrough 502 system might suffer reversals at precisely the time the fledgling regulated industry needs to succeed financially.

With regard to SPD’s pending consent decree, Seattle is fortunate in having the same judge who granted a temporary restraining order to Attorney General Bob Ferguson over Trump’s travel ban executive order—James Robart—presiding over our consent decree. He has made it clear that Seattle will not be released from federal oversight until the department has undergone a fundamental cultural transformation; at the same time, we have to assume that a Sessions Justice Department will probably not hold police reform as its highest priority. Up until now, the USA as plaintiff in this case has been more of a partner than an adversary, but the Fraternal Order of Police did endorse Mr. Trump.

And against all of these pending projects with significant potential federal impact, we have Seattle’s status as a sanctuary—or “welcoming”—city under attack. It’s difficult to match up the rhetoric with specific legal threats, but we have tried to anticipate how “federal funding” might be withheld and will be prepared to act to protect the City’s interests. I also stay in touch with AG Ferguson and monitor the day-by-day milestones in that case.

Is there anything you wish you could work on that you haven’t yet found time for?

I’d like to have greater policy initiative capacity. That is, to hire lawyers and other professionals to help identify new legal theories or approaches to modern urban problems that can help alleviate the gridlock in Washington D.C. and Olympia. We live in a cutting-edge City and have the best lawyers, but our capacity is often limited to a reactionary mode rather than one that’s taking the plunge with new approaches (like I-502). 

Is there a clear action or behavior that fellow Yalies could undertake to be useful in advancing one of the concerns you’ve discussed, either in the near or long term?

Be engaged. In particular, insist upon thoughtful, rational debate. The power of belligerence is being used now by both ends of the political spectrum, making it almost impossible to advance clear-headed policy. It’s dispiriting to have to deflect attacks from fellow progressives, and it goes beyond simply letting the perfect be the enemy of the good: It’s in part what gave us President Trump.

For our fellow Yalies who aren’t accustomed to the political arena, but who would like to gain a better intuition for how their skills could plug in, how might they dip a toe in the water? 

Get involved in your own legislative district politics. I started with the 37th Legislative District Democrats, becoming a Precinct Committee Officer. I learned a lot in the process about political issues ranging from local to global, and established a strong network of friends and neighbors in the process that has been a mutual support system throughout. Then get involved in a specific political campaign, and possibly, eventually your own. You’ll be hooked.