Peder Nelson, [email protected]
The Berkeley, California City Council is trying to update a 20-year old city ordinance that makes marijuana offenses the lowest priority for police. If they are successful, "The Kinder and Safer Streets Act of 1999" would restructure law enforcement priorities to focus mainly on violent offenses while establishing a new guidelines for responding to marijuana use, possession, and sales in the community.
"We're trying to balance public health and safety issues with the values of the community," said Don Duncan of the Berkeley Cannabis Action Network, who helped write the proposed ordinance.
In 1979, the Berkeley Cannabis Initiative was enacted, which made marijuana the lowest priority for the police. But for the last twenty years, the police have interpreted the law as non-binding. Council member Kriss Worthington told the Week Online, "Despite the overwhelming community support for the Berkeley Cannabis Initiative and 1996's Proposition 215, in which 81% of Berkeley voters supported the use of medical marijuana for the seriously ill, in the last 2 years marijuana arrests have nearly doubled and felony marijuana arrests have nearly tripled."
As a way to stem the rise in marijuana arrests, council members Worthington and Linda Maio, in conjunction with local organizations, helped to write the new ordinance, which further protects medical marijuana patients from criminal charges and creates three enforcement "priority levels" for non-medical users which they say reflects the "collateral harm" to the community.
For example, selling marijuana to a child or driving while impaired by marijuana would not be tolerated. Selling or intending to sell marijuana on public property would be considered "moderate priority" and the offender would be cited or arrested on misdemeanor charges. The police would be directed to ignore the "lowest priority" offenses, such as personal use of the drug in a private residence.
Despite statistics showing increases in marijuana arrests, Berkeley Police Captain Bobby Miller said he doesn't think the proposed ordinance is necessary. "It talks about assuring that marijuana enforcement be one of the lowest priorities, but that's no change from what has always been done. In terms of the great scheme of things and all the things we have to do as police officers, it's not high on the list to go out and enforce marijuana laws." As of June 30, there had been 139 marijuana arrests this year, police said.
The proposal awaits review by the City Manager and the Chief of Police while the council is on summer recess.
(Council member Worthington has urged people to send e-mail in support of the ordinance and, if you live in the City of Berkeley, to mail a letter of support to the city council. Write to: Councilmember Kriss Worthington, [email protected], Councilmember Linda Maio, [email protected], or Office of the City Clerk, 1900 Addison St., Berkeley, CA 94704. Visit the City of Berkeley website at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us.)