AR: City sees no effect from law on ‘pot’

Discussion in 'The Drug War Headline News' started by Lit_Match, Jul 24, 2007.

  1. Lit_Match Lit_Match

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    City sees no effect from law on ‘pot’
    07-23-07|Arkansas Online|By Tracie Dungan

    A pro-marijuana initiative approved by Eureka Springs voters in November has had no impact on how police handle arrests for misdemeanor possession, city officials say.

    Voters passed an ordinance directing police and prosecutors to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a low law-enforcement priority. Under Arkansas law, such possession is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $ 1,000 fine.

    Eureka Springs Mayor Dani Wilson contends there’s been no change. “The misconception here is that everybody thought when this thing passed that it was OK to run around with marijuana — it’s not,” she said. Police Chief Earl Hyatt said there are several reasons the ballot measure’s success hasn’t changed things.

    Hyatt repeated last week what he said last fall: His department had enforcement discretion before voters passed the ordinance.

    “Simple possession of marijuana has always been a low priority for us,” he said, meaning officers can decide whether to pursue charges with such a small amount.

    In Arkansas, anyone arrested on a Class A misdemeanor must be booked and fingerprinted at a jail. The arresting officer can then decide whether to hold the person or allow a release on a citation, Hyatt said.

    However, since officers don’t actively pursue misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, this dilemma rarely comes up, the chief said.

    Most of the city’s minor “pot” possession arrests occur after suspects brought in on other offenses are searched at the jail’s book-in counter and marijuana is discovered, he said. Any change in misdemeanor marijuana arrests is tied to chance and the city’s overall arrest numbers, which can fluctuate, he said.

    For instance, there were 12 such marijuana arrests in the first half of this year, which accounted for 4. 3 percent of the total 279 arrests for all offenses, Hyatt said.

    That’s double the number of minor marijuana arrests for the same period in 2006, when the city had six, accounting for 2. 4 percent of the 252 total arrests.

    One supporter of the ordinance, Bill King, said his observations and conversations with other residents lead him to believe the city officials are correct in their assessments of the ordinance’s impact.

    “I don’t sense that there’s been any change,” said King, the former publisher-editor of the Lovely County Citizen newspaper who now owns an antique mall.

    “Although I think the symbolism is a really good thing,” he said.

    He doesn’t believe police pursued misdemeanor marijuana possession before, nor were they “overly concerned” with it.

    King said he’d prefer to see marijuana possession and use legalized.

    King doesn’t recall that the marijuana initiative received much opposition, certainly nothing like the backlash that the city’s successful domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples spawned this year.

    Wilson said the marijuana ordinance is more of a symbolic statement than anything else.

    “The police cannot ignore state and federal law; they cannot do that,” she said. “This thing was just an olive [branch].”

    Wilson said she didn’t campaign on the issue while seeking the mayor’s seat last fall, but she did oppose it personally, voting against the initiative petition on the November ballot. She couldn’t support it because of its conflict with state and federal laws, she said.

    Its presence doesn’t bother her, she said.

    “I know our police force is going to do what they need to do in any given. situation,” the mayor said. “I know they are going to uphold the law.”

    Last year’s effort in Eureka Springs didn’t originate within its borders.

    A registered student organization at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, an affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML, collected 156 petition signatures in September 2006, about a dozen more than needed to put the question to Eureka Springs voters.

    The group tried the petition there after two simultaneous petition efforts it started in Fayetteville last year proved daunting.

    NORML needed about 3, 600 signatures in Fayetteville for a similar enforcement-priority change and for another that involved medical use of marijuana, said Ryan Denham, who was Fayetteville NORML’s campaign director last fall.

    The latter would have urged that doctors not be prosecuted for recommending medical use and that prosecutors leave patients alone, as well.

    The petition drives took place from April to June 2006, but were aborted when organizers realized they were running out of help and time to make election law deadlines. Denham said the Fayetteville campus proved to have few students who were registered voters, and many who could vote were registered back in their home counties and couldn’t have cast a Fayetteville ballot.

    Denham is still an adviser to Fayetteville NORML and is president of a statewide organization with similar goals, Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas.

    Eureka Springs is the only city in Arkansas where any sort of marijuana reform law has passed to date, Denham said.

    After the ordinance’s approval, Denham said then that Fayetteville NORML would turn its attention to getting a similar initiative passed in Fayetteville in 2008.

    But last week he wouldn’t reveal the group’s specific plans, the kinds of initiatives or the cities where it might try them. He would only to say the group was exploring initiatives throughout the state and weighing its options.

    Establishing a low law-enforcement priority is the most conservative change in marijuana laws and is about the only one that can be accomplished locally, Denham said.

    Allowing medical use and legalization each would require statewide change, either through the Legislature or through the initiative of voters.

    Under current laws, decriminalization couldn’t be accomplished locally or at the state level, he believes.

    “You really can’t decriminalize in Arkansas because it is not a ‘home-rule’ state,” said Denham, who tracks pro-marijuana successes nationwide. Arkansas cities and counties can’t contradict state statutes.

    Decriminalization, generally and broadly, means a lessening of criminal penalties, a decrease in fines or both, he said, adding that the Eureka Springs’ initiative doesn’t seek such changes.

    Denham said the arrest statistics showed him that, since the ordinance became effective the marijuana arrests have stayed “pretty much the same” when compared to Eureka Springs ’ overall arrests.

    “The sky hasn’t fallen there — the sky has not fallen,” he said. “Drug hippies have not infested the town of Eureka Springs, as our opponents might have you believe.”

    Despite business as usual, Denham said, “it sends a very clear message to Eureka Springs and its law enforcement officials that [residents are] fed up with a costly and unjust war on ‘pot.’”

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