Marijuana: California Superior Court Upholds Santa Barbara's "Lowest Enforcement Priority" Law

A California Superior Court judge Tuesday rebuffed an effort by the city of Santa Barbara to undo the city's voter-mandated policy of making the enforcement of the laws against marijuana use the city's lowest law enforcement priority. Voters approved the law, known as Measure P, last November with more than 65% of the vote, but recalcitrant city officials sued local activist Heather Poet, the initiative's proponent of record, in a bid to get the measure overturned.

The city argued that the law should be overturned because it interfered with state and federal marijuana law enforcement, but Judge Thomas Anderle disagreed, dismissing the case. "Nothing in [Measure P] prohibits enforcement of state law... Police officers can still arrest those who violate drug possession laws in their presence. The voters have simply instructed them that they have higher priority work to do," he said in his ruling. "Santa Barbara is free to decline to enforce federal criminal statutes," he added. "Indeed, the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from impressing 'into its service - and at no cost to itself - the police officers of the 50 states.'"

Judge Anderle also cited California's ban on SLAPP suits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, which bars officials from suing individuals for their political activities. Although the city claimed in court filings that it sued Poet only because it needed someone to sue to challenge the law, Anderle found that the lawsuit arose from "her constitutional right to participate in the process of formulating laws" and thus violated the SLAPP suit law.

"Today's ruling is a major victory for the democratic process and a resounding affirmation of voters' right to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, which represented Poet in the proceedings and which filed the successful motion to dismiss. "The people of Santa Barbara would rather local law enforcement focus on combating serious crime than policing marijuana use. Today's ruling confirms that the voters can make this fundamentally local decision about their community's safety."

"It was terrifying to be sued by my own government, and for a fleeting moment it made me feel maybe I shouldn't have gotten involved in the democratic process," said Poet. "But this decision proves we do have a voice and we should never be afraid to use it. It also affirms that people in Santa Barbara, and throughout America, can protect their communities by having police focus on serious crime, rather than marijuana offenses."

Measure P makes "investigations, citations, arrests, property seizures, and prosecutions for adult marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the city of Santa Barbara's lowest law enforcement priority." At least six other California jurisdictions have enacted lowest law enforcement priority initiatives as part of a broader effort to end marijuana prohibition in the state.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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