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Feature: Lowest Law Enforcement Priority Marijuana Initiatives Face the Voters in Five Cities

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.

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"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.

Marijuana: Arkansas Town Joins List of Locales With Lowest Law Enforcement Priority Initiatives This November

Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is the latest community to join the ranks of those voting on initiatives that would make marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Similar efforts have been victorious in Seattle and Oakland and the college town of Columbia, Missouri; and this year, Missoula, Montana, and three California cities -- Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica -- already have lowest priority initiatives qualified for the ballot.

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marijuana bust
Thanks to the efforts of nearby University of Arkansas NORML, who put on the signature gathering effort, the Carroll County Election Commission approved the measure for the ballot Monday. The measure would make the arrest and prosecution of marijuana possession cases involving less than an ounce the lowest law enforcement priority.

“We believe this is going to free up other police resources to deal with more serious crimes,” local NORML chapter president Ryan Denham told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt was not enthused, though he did sound a bit confused. He errantly told the Democrat-Gazette the measure would contradict state and federal law, but it would only direct police to set a policy regarding law enforcement priorities. “Whether it passes or not, if it’s in contradiction with state or federal law, it doesn’t count,” Hyatt said.

NORML's Denham told the local newspaper the campus group had originally set out to mount campaigns in Fayetteville, where the university is, but aborted those efforts after realizing they would fall short. Instead, they aimed at the smaller Eureka Springs, where only 144 valid signatures -- 15% of those voting in the last mayoral election -- were required. The group handed in 156.

Feature: California Activists Look for Triple Play in November

Inspired by 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. Organizers in all three cities say their prospects for victory are good.

The three California local initiatives contain almost identical language and describe themselves similarly. As the web site for Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the group running the campaign there, notes, the initiative "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."

The Santa Cruz initiative goes one step further by establishing an official city position in favor of marijuana legalization. The initiative there would "establish a city policy supporting changes in state and federal laws that call for taxation and regulation for adult use of marijuana."

This year's batch of initiatives are a direct outgrowth of the 2004 Oakland Measure Z campaign, where activists organized as the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance (OCLA) managed to pass an initiative making adult marijuana offenses the lowest priority and instructing the city to advocate for the taxation and regulation of marijuana. While OCLA is not formally involved in this year's initiatives, some of its members, like Richard Lee of the Oaksterdam News and the Bulldog Coffeeshop, have helped bankroll the effort. Others, such as long-time activist Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign and California NORML head Dale Gieringer have been instrumental as advisors.

"After our successful experience with Measure Z in Oakland, those of us from OCLA wanted to spread this around California to show broad support, so last year, we and California NORML sponsored a statewide activists' conference where we shared our Oakland strategy and looked for which other areas in the state might be amendable to doing something similar," Norris told Drug War Chronicle. "The political consultant we had used, Susan Stevenson from Next Generation, wrote a grant application to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) saying we were interested in initiatives or ordinances in five cities, and we got an MPP contract that provided basic funding. We still have to do more fundraising, but that grant made this possible," she said.

Following that, said Norris, the activists narrowed their focus. "We found people in what looked like good areas, and we raised some money to do polling to see if they were viable, we looked at the demographics, and we settled on these three cities."

Actually West Hollywood and San Francisco were also targeted, but in the former, a city councilman came forward with an ordinance that organizers could live with, and they dropped their initiative campaign. In San Francisco, city supervisors this week were moving toward adopting a lowest priority ordinance.

Organizers in the three Santas are hard at work now to ensure victory in November, they told the Chronicle in remarkably similar on-message terms. "It's looking very good here," said Sensible Santa Barbara spokesperson Lara Cassell. "We've been very successful so far, and there is no organized opposition," she told the Chronicle. "In fact, no one even bothered to submit an opposing argument for the ballot, which is fabulous. Santa Barbara is very friendly to our issue."

Sensible Santa Barbara was benefiting from the help provided by statewide activists, said Cassell, "but we are lucky to have a lot of people in the community here who support us. We feel very good about this. We are confident it will pass."

"Things are going really well here," said Kate Horner, campaign director for Sensible Santa Cruz, the group leading the effort there. "There is no organized opposition, although a few community leaders have spoken out against the initiative over possible costs. But those costs will be minimal," she told the Chronicle. "In Seattle and Oakland, they say the costs are basically a matter of photocopying charges, no more."

Unlike the Santa Barbara and Santa Monica initiatives, the Santa Cruz initiative goes beyond lowest priority language. "That provision would require the city clerk to annually send letters to state and federal government officials stating the city's preference for a tax and regulate model," Horner explained. "That would be our city policy."

Support for not criminalizing marijuana users runs high in Santa Cruz. In a poll done in November, more than 80% of people there opposed criminalizing pot smokers.

"That polling data gave us our mandate," said Horner. "It really showed strong support. Since then, it has just been a matter of building coalitions across the community. I'm confident the community wants to redirect resources from nonviolent marijuana offenders to serious and violent criminals."

"Things are looking good here," said Nicki LaRosa, spokesperson for the Santa Monica effort. "Our strategy is to get as many people involved as possible. There are lots of people here who have expressed support, and we are working on making sure we get the message out and get our voters to the polls," she told the Chronicle.

"We do have police opposition -- they wrote the ballot argument against the initiative -- but we also have a lot of community support. The police say marijuana is already a low priority, but the statistics we've seen show people still getting arrested. We want to send a message to Sacramento and Washington that Santa Monica is ready for the next phase of ending the drug war by deprioritizing marijuana offenses."

Santa Monica looks like the toughest nut to crack, said Norris. "We feel confident in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara; Santa Monica is where we are most concerned," said Norris. "We are expecting opposition from the police officers association. Santa Monica is a bit of a challenge. It is a progressive city, but it has also been undergoing a transformation in recent years with luxury hotels and property values going up. And unlike Oakland, even progressives seem to align themselves with the police in Santa Monica. The city is also very finicky politically and has a strong NIMBY component," she worried.

But Norris also noted that current political issues could have positive impact in all three cities. "These initiatives are especially timely as California is currently confronted with a severe prison overcrowding crisis," she pointed out. "It's time to reconsider who we are placing in these overcrowded prisons and to set priorities. We can keep building new prisons at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, or we can look at alternative policies that stop sending so many nonviolent offenders to prison. Cities and the state will certainly save money by not arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating otherwise law-abiding citizens to prison for marijuana," she argued.

And not only could the state save money, it could also make money by moving to taxation and regulation, Norris argued. "It's been all over the news lately that law enforcement is finding and uprooting thousands and thousands of marijuana plants grows on public lands with the street value in the millions," she said, alluding to the state's annual fall eradication frenzy. "It doesn't seem to be making much of a dent on the supply. The market in this state is huge. We could conceivably raise billions of dollars in revenues and help fund services if we controlled, taxed and regulated cannabis."

That's the not so long-term plan, Norris confided. "We want to set this up so on election day we can say that people across California want to stop arresting marijuana offenders and get the police to concentrate on violent and serious crime," she said. "We're hoping to get a big enough bounce off this election to either inspire another round of initiatives or go statewide," said Norris. "Our goal is ultimately to bring fundamental marijuana law reform across the state."

Heroin Lifers, DEA Pain Guidance, California Lowest Priority Initiatives

Those are the feature stories I think I will be doing this week. It doesn't always happen that way, though. Some readers may recall that I was going to do the Louisiana heroin lifer story last week, but I didn't manage to get ahold of any of the people critical to the story. I'm back on it again this week. Similarly, something may break during the week. This typically happens on Thursday, the day we're supposed to be wrapping up the Chronicle. I'll also be looking into the DEA's release last week of a new policy statement on pain management. Some reformers have hailed it as a victory for the movement, but others are not so sure, and neither am I. I'll be talking to a wide range of people who are involved in this issue to try to find out what this really means. Meanwhile, elections are only a matter of weeks away. I'll be taking a look this week at how things are going in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, the three California cities where "lowest law enforcement priority" marijuana initiatives are on the ballot. And, of course, there will also be the seven or eight shorter pieces we do each week.
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Marijuana: "Lowest Priority" Local Initiatives Make Ballot in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and Missoula

It's official. Local initiatives that would make adult marijuana infractions the lowest law enforcement priority will be on the November ballot in three California cities -- Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica -- and the college town of Missoula, Montana. Missoula County officials certified that effort Thursday, and certifications of the California local elections came in over the summer.

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Santa Monica
In Missoula, Citizens for Responsible Crime Policy used a grant from the Marijuana Policy Project to collect more than 20,000 signatures in three months, far more than are needed to make the ballot. Organizers there hope to build on the statewide medical marijuana victory in 2004.

In California, organizers in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica also succeeded in gathering sufficient signatures to make the ballot. The three California local initiatives contain almost identical language and describe themselves similarly. As the Santa Monica web site notes, the initiative "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."

The Santa Cruz initiative goes one step further by establishing an official city position in favor of marijuana legalization. "Voters in Santa Cruz are tired of the failed and immoral federal war on drugs," said Andrea Tischler, chair of Santa Cruz Citizens for Sensible Marijuana Policy. "Let's move to a more reasonable marijuana policy, and make sure that our police and courts are not wasting their time and resources arresting and prosecuting nonviolent marijuana offenders. By passing this initiative, Santa Cruz can be a beacon of light showing the way to a more sensible policy that is compatible with the values of the majority of citizens."

Lowest priority initiatives have already passed in Seattle and Oakland, which was the model and inspiration for this year's local California initiatives, as well as a handful of college towns around the country.

Marijuana: Colorado Legalization Backers Turn In 110,000 Signatures in Ballot Bid

Organizers of an initiative that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in Colorado turned in more than 110,000 signatures to the secretary of state Monday afternoon. The initiative needs 67,829 valid signatures to make the November ballot.

If the measure makes the ballot, Colorado will join Nevada as states where voters will have a chance to decide on removing all criminal penalties for the possession of personal amounts of marijuana by adults. Currently, Alaska is the only state to allow adults to legally possess marijuana -- up to one ounce in the privacy of their homes.

Organized by SAFER Colorado, the initiative is an effort to replicate the success the group had in Denver last year, where residents voted to legalize the possession of up to an ounce under city ordinance. Denver police and prosecutors, however, have ignored that vote and continue to ticket and arrest people under state law.

"This past November, the people of the city of Denver voted to make the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana legal for adults under city ordinances," said SAFER campaign director Mason Tvert. "Yet our cowardly city officials blatantly ignored the will of the people and have continued arresting and prosecuting Denver residents under state law for making the safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol. We think that is wrong, and it appears more than 110,000 people in the great state of Colorado agree with us."

Marijuana: West Hollywood Passes "Lowest Priority" Resolution

The West Hollywood, CA, City Council voted Monday night to approve a resolution calling on Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies to not "target adult marijuana users who consume this drug in private and pose no danger to the community." Although it is nonbinding, the resolution sends a strong message to LA County Sheriff Joe Baca about how the city of 35,000 wants its laws enforced.

West Hollywood now becomes the first Southern California city to adopt a "lowest law enforcement priority" measure toward marijuana similar to Oakland's successful 2004 Proposition Z initiative. But it may not be the last this year. Similar "lowest priority" measures are slated to go to the voters in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica in November.

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medical marijuana poster from WAMM, Santa Cruz
The resolution was introduced by Councilman John Duran, and passed on a 4-0 vote. Duran and the council acted after local activists organized in the West Hollywood Civil Liberties Alliance filed a petition to put a lowest priority initiative to the popular vote. Given that city officials viewed LA County Sheriff Joe Baca as already not making marijuana law enforcement a high priority, and fearful of costs and "inflexibilities" associated with a ballot initiative, the council agreed to address the issue via a resolution after consulting with the Alliance.

The resolution says "be it resolved that the City Council of the City of West Hollywood hereby declares that it is not the policy of the City or its law enforcement agency to target possession of small amounts of marijuana and the consumption of marijuana in private by adults."

"Marijuana, you know, a joint or two is just so far down on the scale it doesn't seem worthwhile to allocate any sources to the enforcement of the marijuana laws," said Duran. "We've seen that marijuana use is certainly no more dangerous and destructive than alcohol use," Duran said. "The whole 'reefer madness' hysteria has worn thin."

While Sheriff Baca and his deputies may not be prowling West Hollywood for pot smokers, the agency is unsurprisingly not happy to be told how to do its job. Some Sheriff's Office officials were among the few public opponents of the resolution, and City Councilman Joe Prang, who is a high Baca advisor, abstained on the vote.

But Baca was being politic Monday afternoon. "We certainly in my office understand what pressure is," he told the Los Angeles Times, suggesting city officials were besieged by pot legalizers. "My belief is that the city needs to have its voice heard on the matter, and the question will remain to what extent is this resolution binding. We will look at it for all of our pluses and minuses and advise the City Council as to our position."

If the department decides it will not comply with the resolution, the city could terminate its $10 million annual contract to provide law enforcement services and seek another department to replace the Sheriff's Department. But that is unlikely, Duran told the Times. "That would put us in an awkward situation," he said."

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