More sensible marijuana policy initiatives may be about to hit the pot-friendly Pacific Northwest. It started with Sensible Seattle, the group whose initiative ordering Seattle police and prosecutors to make marijuana possession arrests their lowest priority cruised to an easy victory in September (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/304/i75.shtml). Now, a similar initiative is getting underway just a few hours down the I-5 corridor in Eugene, Oregon.
A group calling itself Sensible Lane County -- Eugene is the county seat -- is working on final language for an initiative that would bar the county from spending public funds for marijuana law enforcement, arrests, prosecutions, and county jail time. Initiative organizers told DRCNet this week that the initiative may also include language forbidding Lane County law enforcement from contracting with the federal government in marijuana eradication and raids against medical marijuana patients.
"This initiative will block the county from spending money to harass adults who use marijuana. It does not apply to minors, and it does not apply to marijuana-related commercial activities. As citizen legislators, we can cut off funding for marijuana arrests, prosecutions and punishment by county officials," said Sensible Lane County (http://www.sensiblelanecounty.tk) co-director Chris Wise. "We intend to do just that. Let's get people out of county jail for personal marijuana use. Let's quit wasting our tax dollars on marijuana enforcement," he told DRCNet. "We became aware of what voters in Seattle were doing to get law enforcement to stop spending money persecuting people who use cannabis, and we decided to follow their example," he explained.
"All we have is a draft at this point," Wise said. "We have had an analysis come back from the legislative council and we are redrafting based on their comments. We are also consulting with the Oregon ACLU and with state Rep. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) on the draft," Wise continued. Still, he said, the goal is to have the initiative drafted and signatures gathered in time to get the issue on the November 2004 general election ballot. That will require a signature gathering campaign completed by the end of June, he said.
Wise also cited the experience of Mendocino County, California, where voters directed county officials to leave alone gardens of less than 25 plants, then threw out a sheriff and district attorney who refused to comply. And Wise and Sensible Lane County co-director Eileen Erdelt pointed to a recent DEA raid against a medical marijuana patient and grower in Oregon, where medical marijuana is legal under state law. With more than 6,000 registered patients and nearly 4,000 registered providers, the state could be fair game for rampaging federal agents. It happened October 2 to Lebanon, Oregon, resident Travis Paulson, whose garden was raided and his medicine seized by the DEA.
"We do not want Lane County authorities to aid and abet this behavior," said Wise, "and that is why we are considering language that would bar county law enforcement from cooperating in federal marijuana law enforcement. But we are not certain at this point we will include that. We have to make sure it would not violate a provision in the state constitution that bars separate issues on one initiative, and there is also the issue of funding a campaign that included that language." Sensible Lane has a grant application pending with the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), Wise said. "They are interested in the language barring participation with the feds and may fund us."
MPP communications director Bruce Mirken confirmed that an application is pending and that MPP is interested in just such language in an initiative. "Any time a community chooses to just say no to the war on pot, we see that as a step in the right direction," he told DRCNet. "This is important both locally and symbolically as a step away from these absurd national policies. We're inclined to support these efforts if we think they're feasible," he said.
Sensible Lane isn't just sitting around waiting for grants to roll in, though. "We have formed a political action committee for Sensible Lane," said Erdelt, who also operates Cannabis TV, a Eugene cable access program. "We're looking for funding. We'll go door to door to register voters and fundraise, and we'll also organize fundraisers and celebrations through June. We also have a few high-donor fundraising parties planned," she explained. "The consciousness here is so good, we basically just need to go out and visit people. We are very confident of the community support we will find," said Erdelt.
"And one of the primary goals of the PAC is to defeat George Bush. We are registering voters both to get the initiative passed and to defeat Bush," she told DRCNet. "Vote against one Bush, vote for another," she laughed.
Such an overtly partisan approach might just work in Eugene, a city known as a hot-bed of Greens, anarchists, and similarly minded folks, said Mirken. "You have to design your campaign around the constituency you're talking to," he told DRCNet. "In San Francisco or Seattle or Eugene, an anti-Bush campaign would be very popular. Clearly on marijuana and drug policy, Bush has been absolutely horrible, but people could have differing views about Iraq or the economy, and you need to discuss this with the public in a way that does not alienate potential voters."
Lane County officials contacted by DRCNet shared no views on the merits of President Bush, and while they were not exactly jumping for joy over the prospect of an initiative that would block the county from enforcing marijuana laws, neither were they rabidly opposed. (Lane County District Attorney Harcleroad, identified by Sensible Lane as a real foe, was out of town at a legislative conference and unavailable for comment. Sheriff Jan Clements was similarly unavailable for comment, but told the Eugene Register-Guard last week that "the law is the law"). A Eugene police spokesperson pronounced herself unconcerned about the initiative, telling DRCNet it would not have much impact on the city's police practices.
But Lane County public affairs officer Tony Vieda begged to differ. "Their cops may arrest people, but they would have to use our courts and our prosecutors to try them and our jail to incarcerate them," he said. "Eugene investigates and arrests, then it becomes a county matter. The district attorney has to use resources even to decide if a case merits prosecution." While Vieda joined the Eugene police in suggesting that simple possession arrests were relatively rare, he did not venture an opinion on the substance of the initiative.
Lane County Judge Darrell Larson wasn't so reticent. "I think an initiative like that would be impractical," he told DRCNet. "How does the poor cop on the street apply something like that? Sometimes you're investigating a marijuana case and you find other drugs, sometimes you're investigating stolen property and you find a grow," said Larson, who served as a drug court judge in Lane County through 2001.
"There are also a lot of misconceptions about marijuana," Larson continued. "It makes people who use it lethargic and nonproductive, but it's not a real threat to the community -- except when people are driving. As a judge and a member of the community, my real concern about marijuana smokers is that they're clueless as to the risk they pose behind the wheel to themselves and others." [Ed: The risk of mayhem by marijuana-impaired drivers is often raised, but finds little support in scientific literature on marijuana and driving -- and no more justifies prohibition than drunk driving justifies prohibiting alcohol. See http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/264/druggeddriving.shtml for a discussion of this.)
While Larson went on to bemoan the recalcitrance of some marijuana addicts, even noting that they sometimes disrupted drug treatment groups by justifying their drug use, and declared himself opposed to marijuana legalization, he conceded that "jail is not the answer." Treatment works, said the judge. Still, said Larson, marijuana is "a unique drug in that there is a broad general acceptance of it as a substance. Even though it's unlawful, it's not so unlawful, if you know what I mean."
Sensible Lane County aims to make it even less unlawful, and if Judge Larson is any indication of what they're up against, they have a lot of talking to do.