A narc from the old days lives to regret some felony marijuana convictions

jdodge@theolympian.comDecember 6, 2012 

As a faithful soldier in the “War on Drugs,” Tony Sexton had his hand in thousands of drug busts, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the early 1980s.

He worked his way up the ladder of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy, sergeant and undersheriff. Later, he served as the chief investigator for the Washington State Patrol’s Drug Control Assistance Unit, helping smaller counties and cities around the state penetrate the drug culture by nurturing informants, sending civilians and police officers undercover and doing whatever it took to bust drug users and drug peddlers in high schools, nightclubs, taverns and on the street.

Sometimes he saw — and used — tactics that bordered on entrapment, or even crossed the line. At 75, he’s lived long enough and seen enough societal changes to have some regrets.

For instance, on this, the day when it’s no longer against state law for someone 21 or older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana, Sexton is having second thoughts about all the young adults he helped saddle with felony convictions for possession of pot.

He estimates that up to 50 percent of those he helped arrest and convict on marijuana charges would not be criminals under the provisions of Initiative 502, which the voters passed in November.

Don’t get Sexton wrong: He’s no fan of marijuana.

“I’m not saying marijuana is OK — I voted against the initiative,” he said. “But if the majority of voters in this state vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, let’s be fair about it.”

Here’s what Sexton thinks would be fair: Have the governor issue a blanket pardon for all the convicted felons who would not be felons under the new law.

“They should have their records expunged and their rights restored,” the Tumwater-area resident said. “They should be able to get a passport, or a hunting license or not have to list themselves as convicted felons when they apply for a job.”

I ran Sexton’s idea past Gov. Chris Gregoire the other day as she reflected on her eight years as governor during an interview with The Olympian editorial board. She gave me that look that lives between quizzical and disbelieving, then fired off a quick response.

“I’m not going there,” the outgoing governor said. “Felons can petition to recover their rights.”

A felon who’s served his or her sentence does have options for recovering civil rights. He or she can petition the sentencing court, petition the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board or seek a pardon from the governor through the state Clemency and Pardons Board.

As of Wednesday, the clemency board hadn’t heard from any felons with marijuana convictions that are no longer illegal under state law, clemency board paralegal Terri Gottberg said.

At the same time the governor scoffed at a blanket pardon, the governor vowed to keep working on implementation of I-502. And she voiced frustration with federal officials who won’t give a straight answer on how they will respond to this state’s decriminalization of adult possession of an ounce or less of pot.

Will the feds take legal action to try to overturn the new state law? What will their enforcement policy be? And why does the federal Drug Enforcement Agency insist on classifying marijuana as a “Schedule 1” controlled substance, lumping it in with heroin, LSD and morphine? Those are three questions for which Gregoire, Sexton and many others want answers.

I’ve talked with Sexton several times about pot busts from the early years of the drug war. He’s the one who usually brings up the subject. It’s like he wants to get a bad taste out of his mouth.

Here’s one tactic from the old days: A cop finds what looks like a marijuana seed or two in the pants pocket of a hitchhiker. They book him in the old county courthouse jail while Sexton places the seed or seeds in a damp paper towel, sticks it on his steam heat radiator in his office. If it germinates, bingo, it was evidence under laws on the books in the 1960s of felony possession of marijuana.

“At that time, I had no trouble booking a case like that,” Sexton said. But times change, and so has Sexton.

While no fan of pot, Sexton doesn’t see its use as a gateway to harder drugs. And he’s among the first to agree that arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana has been a waste of time and resources, even though he did it countless times.

“Locking people up doesn’t work,” he said. “We should be using drug education to reach people — they aren’t stupid.”

So the hard-nosed cop who used to send narcs to bartender school in Seattle so they could go undercover in search of druggies has had a change of heart. So have the majority of state voters.

jdodge@theolympian.com

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