by Justice Rivera

Post legalizing marijuana, it is easy for liberal voters to think that we are moving towards more just criminal legal practices and recognition of bodily autonomy. Legalizing marijuana came with promises of cutting police presence in communities of color and the budgets of prosecutors. However, the pursuit of racial justice and decarceration has faded away as cities focus on regulation and revenue. I was one of those voters. It wasn’t until I was brought in as part of a team tasked with analyzing Seattle/ King County’s response to sex work and sex trafficking that I began to see that the legalization of marijuana is only a re-branding for police and prosecutors.

Although incredibly progressive in its approaches towards drug use, the current King County District Attorney’s office does not embrace the same harm reduction approaches to the sex trade. Reframe Health and Justice were brought in to figure out why. To begin to understand this phenomenon, we talked with many local service providers and advocates within the sex worker rights and anti-trafficking movements, analyzed arrest data from the past five years, and interviewed survival sex workers along one of Seattle’s predominant outdoor sex work markets. What we found is concerning.

What is happening in Seattle mirrors tactics taken by the Israeli government to draw attention away from racist practices by highlighting progressive LGBTQ policies. Specifically, it is reminiscent of Israeli government propaganda that diverts attention away from Palestinian occupation and violence by leveraging the country’s openness and support of LGBTQ adoption to say ‘see, we aren’t homophobic,’ earning it the name Pink Washing. Similarly, Weed Washing is where cities pass more liberal drug policy reform measures, while diverting attention away from expansions in policing. It is when marijuana legalization is used as a smoke-and-mirrors policy to shift police resources to policing the sex trade, specifically within communities of color.

Seattle is not the only jurisdiction with progressive drug laws and harsh penalties for prostitution. Over the past few years, many public health and social service professionals across the US have expressed concern that law enforcement allies who know that they cannot arrest their way out of drug addiction are not able to apply this mindset to sex work. Wouldn’t a person’s support for the right to bodily autonomy translate from drug use to sex work? The answer lies in the careful construction of this phenomenon.

End Demand: a prohibitionist approach to the sex trade

After introduction in a variety of countries, sex workers report negative impacts of the Nordic Model including increased stigma, isolation, and violence. More police presence surrounding people who buy sex means increased surveillance of the entire sex trade, and even if they aren’t being picked up on prostitution, sex workers are still facing things like quality of life charges instead.

The Nordic Model is a carceral approach to the sex trade. End Demand institutionalizes generalizations about a vulnerable population, promotes racist propaganda, and funnels money into law enforcement to try and somehow end exploitation with a violent and exploitative criminal legal system. Does this sound like the prohibitionist approach to drug use to anyone? So, why does End Demand prevail in areas that recognize the failure of the war on drugs? The answer might lie in the fact that drug policy reform has yet to reverse systemic racism. Rather, it pushes it elsewhere. In this case, it is channeled into the war on trafficking.

Same strategies, new name

To achieve the goal of bringing the Nordic Model to the states, Demand Abolition funded prosecutor’s offices and law enforcement in 12 cities across the country from 2014–2019. Looking at the geographical distribution of funding (seen in the map above), one can see that funding is given to extremely conservative localities as well as progressive locations including Seattle, Los Angeles, and Boston. The commonality among all the liberal-leaning locations is that they are all in states that have legalized marijuana (Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Massachusetts). Demand Abolition’s approach was to target prosecutor’s offices in areas that legalize marijuana to give them a perfectly packaged way to continue policing communities of color and make enough money to maintain their power in the community.

The result is Weed Washing where the general community feels damn good about itself because voters believe that they are making their community safer by laying off drug users and going after sex traffickers. What a liberal safe haven! A closer look reveals that drug war tactics including increased sanctions, asset forfeiture, and use of mandatory minimums are being used in the war on trafficking to continue to monitor and control communities of color. Just like they did in the war on drugs, these practices are leading to devastating public health consequences including increased infectious disease, violence, exploitation, and death.

Seattle: a case study

The King County District Attorney’s (DA) office made $167,000 in 2017 off fines for prostitution charges.[2] In fact, King County leads the state in prostitution convictions. Furthermore, a review of arrest data reveals that over 50% of people arrested for prostitution have not or cannot pay fines, meaning they are indigent. Half of the collected fines go back to law enforcement to make more prostitution-related arrests and the other half goes to prevention, which in this case is Seattle’s John School. Run by an anti-prostitution program, this school charges nearly $1,000 to cure sex buyers of their “prostitution addiction.” Once the classes are completed, the patronizing charge (which has been renamed “sexual exploitation” in Seattle) is dropped from the man’s record. For those without $1,000 to spend on being reprimanded, they never get the opportunity for a clean record. Furthermore, using last name as a proxy, one can see that there is significant racial disparity in buyer arrest.

The prevailing narrative surrounding trafficking in Seattle is also embedded with racist and sexually shaming tones. An interview with one of Seattle’s prominent anti-trafficking program’s Executive Directors confirmed that mostly men of color are being arrested and charged with sexual exploitation, while predominantly white men (who can afford it) are completing John School without a record. The Police Chief in South Seattle has claimed that rap music leads to trafficking. A Billboard in one of Seattle’s largest social service agencies says that watching porn is a precursor to trafficking, and a local anti-trafficking program ED noted that prevention (eradicating the sex trade) is more important than decarceration (addressing racist criminal justice system practices).

Last year, Demand Abolition changed its funding strategy but the seeds of carceral feminism were planted. The city dropped its interim Nordic Model protocol and increased prostitution stings, targeting both sellers and buyers. Full-scale criminalization of the sex trade is in full effect, and people who just two years ago were seen as victims are once again seen as prostitutes. Local media caught on, City Council caught on, and now the City has begun funding two sex work harm reduction programs for the first time — nearly thirty years since it began funding drug use harm reduction programs. While this is the rose that grew from the concrete, the issue remains that isolated policy reform only shifts criminalization. To truly attain our goals of police and policy reform, we must begin to think in terms of decriminalizing bodily autonomy. And we must focus on the bodies — the communities of color, impoverished communities, and migrant communities -which are most impacted by both the wars on drugs and sex trafficking.

What this means for us now during COVID19

COVID19 presents us with an opportunity to push for eradication of laws criminalizing bodily autonomy. Not just some of them. This is our opportunity to envision police and policy reform that is rooted in racial justice. Not just as an after- thought. I see people coming together to draft a new world without abusive and exploitative police and prisons. May we care for ourselves now so we can carry this vision forward.

[1] Data about sex trafficking is extremely limited due to issues with data collection and funding streams. I used to work at an anti-trafficking program that, like many others, was instructed to count every contact we had as a survivor of trafficking. Most of them were sex workers who were not experiencing exploitation in need of resources. Similarly, the Polaris Project’s National Trafficking Support Hot Line counts every caller as a victim, even when it is a case manager calling 5 times for resources for a victim of domestic violence. That caller was not a victim and was calling about someone who didn’t experience trafficking but is counted as 5 trafficking victims.

[2] All data was and can be obtained through public record request

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