Inspired by successful local initiatives making marijuana the "lowest law enforcement priority" in Seattle and Oakland, activists in three California cities -- Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica -- are busy working to ensure that similar measures pass there in November. Similar measures are also on the ballot in Missoula, Montana, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
"Lowest priority initiatives are relatively cost efficient and for the most part productive," said Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
(NORML), some of whose local affiliates are involved in the Arkansas effort. "They are a way to tap into the sentiments of local voters, and we have certainly seen the success of similar initiatives, especially in Seattle, where their law has some teeth and has yielded a drastic reduction in local arrests. These are not necessarily just symbolic, and they put law enforcement priorities more in line with what the taxpayers prefer," he told the Chronicle.
Such initiatives typically include language like the following from the web site of Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which notes that the initiative there "makes marijuana offenses, where cannabis is intended for adult personal use, the lowest police priority" and "it frees up police resources to focus on violent and serious crime, instead of arresting and jailing nonviolent cannabis users."
In at least one California community, however, the initiative language is a bit stronger. In Santa Cruz, in addition to making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority, the initiative sponsored by Sensible Santa Cruz would "establish a city policy supporting changes in state and federal laws that call for taxation and regulation for adult use of marijuana."
The Missoula initiative is a bit weaker. While it contains the standard lowest law enforcement priority language and calls for the creation of an oversight committee, it only recommends -- not mandates -- such a prioritization.
The Eureka Springs initiative (not available on the web) would modify the town's city ordinances to read: "When any law enforcement officer suspects any adult of possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and/or possession of marijuana paraphernalia, that person shall not be required to post bond, suffer arrest, suffer incarceration, suffer prosecution, be taken into custody for any purpose nor detained for any reason other than the issuance of a citation. There shall be a strong presumption that the proper disposition of any such case is to suspend the imposition of sentence and/or require community service work and/or drug counseling and education." The ballot language continues by pointing out that: "The message of this ordinance is that people should not use marijuana, but should also not lose opportunities for education and employment because of such use. The limited resources of law enforcement should be directed primarily toward crimes of violence or property loss. The enforcement of laws against marijuana shall be the lowest law enforcement priority."
With the November elections now just a matter of days away, Drug War Chronicle decided to check in win initiative organizers to see how things are shaping up. In California, long-time drug reform activist Mikki Norris, a veteran of the successful Measure Z lowest priority campaign in Oakland in 2004, a member of the California Cities Campaign and an advisor to local organizers this year, told the Chronicle the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica initiatives were all in good shape, but that Santa Monica was shaping up as the most difficult challenge.
"We are getting more and more endorsements in all three cities and we've got the Democratic Party clubs in all three cities, and that's important," said Norris. "It's going to really depend on turnout on Election Day, and we still haven't seen what the opposition will do in terms of things like last-minutes mailers."
Santa Monica's changing demographics and complicated local political environment are posing a challenge to success there, said Norris. "Santa Monica has been changing in recent years, and there is now a complex politics there with the luxury hotel lobby very influential and police department that is well-regarded and strongly opposed to the initiative," she said. "Santa Monica is going to be the toughest to win," she predicted.
"We have the most contentious of the three campaigns," agreed Nickie LaRosa, who is heading up the campaign in Santa Monica. "Santa Monica is no longer super-progressive, and people are inclined to look to community leaders and the police for direction. While we have some community leaders with us, we don't have any local elected officials on our side, and the police association is against us," she told the Chronicle.
Still, LaRosa said she was "optimistic" about the initiative's chances. "We're working to do something that will have a very positive effect on the city, and we have a strong grassroots effort. We'll be doing direct mailings when it gets close to Election Day, but for many people, this issue isn't even on the radar yet. We've been laying low -- trying not to create a platform for the police to attack us. We're flying under the radar and trusting that the direct mail campaign will motivate voters who want to see a better city with fewer unsolved crimes."
Things are a bit more relaxed in Santa Cruz, where there is no organized opposition to the local initiative, said campaign coordinator Kate Horner. "We have the support of several council members and county supervisors, and we're doing quite well in terms of community support," she said. "We are very confident the voters will turn out and support this; I think it's just a question of by how much."
Victories in all three cities will send a strong message across the state, said Norris. "That will set us up in a position to go to the state legislature and say that cities across the state are voting to decriminalize and it's time to look at reducing penalties," she said. "Possession is still a misdemeanor here, and we could bring it down to an infraction. Victories in these cities should also encourage elected representatives from those areas to vote for marijuana law reform. It is time to try an alternative to current policy, and winning in November only strengthens our hand," she said.
Meanwhile, up in Montana, Missoula initiative organizers are gearing up for a final push to victory in the face of opposition from local law enforcement and youth substance abuse prevention groups. "We're dealing with the Reefer Madness mentality," said campaign spokesperson Angela Goodhope. "The cops and the substance abuse people make these outrageous claims that everybody is going to start smoking pot, but they don't have any evidence to back them up. We know that liberalizing drug laws in other places has not led to an increase in drug use."
Although initiative backers can easily rebut such claims, it is difficult to match the media access available to police, said Goodhope. "It's tough to combat them if the media just prints this stuff uncritically," she said. "They are also claiming -- falsely -- that if the initiative passes, they will lose federal funding."
But while there is organized opposition in Missoula, it is also the Montana county most likely to be friendly to a lowest priority initiative. Home to the University of Montana, the city has a reputation in the Big Sky state as a mecca of free-thinkers. According to Goodhope, activists across the state met last year after the successful statewide medical marijuana vote, analyzed the results, and found the strongest support in Missoula County.
But Goodhope is nervous as the days tick down. "I stay awake at night thinking about what we can do, what new tactic we can use, what it's going to take for us to win this," she said.
And down in Arkansas, activists affiliated with local NORML chapters have focused on the eccentric small town of Eureka Springs, another bastion of free-thinkers in a conservative state. "Eureka Springs is a special place," said Kelly Maddy of Joplin NORML just across the state line in Missouri. "We originally were aiming at Fayetteville, but when we saw we were coming up short, Eureka Springs was the natural fallback," he said.
Again, law enforcement is proving the biggest obstacle, with local police in Eureka Springs saying they will not enforce the local ordinance if it passes, but will continue to arrest people under state law. "They may not want to enforce the lowest priority law, but if it passes, it will be clear signal to police what the voters want," he said.
In about 10 days, we shall see how the political landscape has shifted and whether we will have five more communities that have essentially rejected marijuana prohibition.