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The Contentious Reality of Measure P

by Ethan Stewart

Flying in the face of federal drug laws, nearly 17,000 Santa Barbara City residents hit the polls last week and voted to make marijuana-related offenses the “lowest priority” of the Santa Barbara Police Department. Thanks to this effort, the appropriately named Measure P passed with a resounding 66 percent of the popular vote. Strongly opposed by local law enforcement, however, the measure seems destined for at least one more showdown before it can become a reality, as the City Council has requested a closed-door meeting with City Attorney Steve Wiley to discuss the various legal implications of the pro-pot directive and the possibility of an appeal. When asked what a Measure P reality will mean for our local cops and residents who indulge in the occasional toke, Lt. Paul McCaffrey commented this week, “We don’t know how it’s going to affect us, and I’m not sure anyone in Santa Barbara knows either.”

But residents of other parts of the country know full well, as similar measures have been passed in such places as Seattle, Oakland, and Columbia, Missouri, since 2003. According to Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr — who is an outspoken critic of the initiative — the measure has made “very little difference” for city residents, as adult pot-related infractions were low both before and after Seattle’s Measure I-75 passed. However, the numbers indicate that pot arrests were reduced by two-thirds, going from 178 citations in the year before the measure passed to 59 the year after. Where Carr feels the measure has left its mark is in the “administrative headache” involved in monitoring the initiative.

McCaffrey predicts a similar fate for Santa Barbara cops should the measure stand as it is currently worded; it now requires officers who cite adult offenders to submit a memo justifying their actions to an oversight committee. But of even greater concern to Santa Barbara cops is the worry that the measure might hamstring their policing duties and prevent them from fulfilling their obligations to local residents. McCaffrey pointed to situations in which criminal activity is reported, but the only incriminating evidence on the scene is marijuana. McCaffrey has “concerns” about what officers will now be able to do to curb the reported illegal behavior in these situations, which frequently involve homeless people in public places. But San Francisco narcotics Captain Timothy Hettrich had a different view, testifying recently before his City Council — which is set to vote on a similar measure this week — “This [lowest-priority initiative] does not tie our hands at all” since it does not change any existing laws.

Policing aside, to the folks at City Hall — including Mayor Marty Blum and City Attorney Wiley — the biggest potential problem with Measure P is one of “constitutionality,” as it directly conflicts with state and federal law. However, the 2003 initiatives of other cities have all survived, and on last week’s election night similar measures passed in Santa Cruz; Santa Monica; Missoula, Montana; and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. “The city has no obligation to enforce federal law at all. Besides, the measure doesn’t say you cannot enforce a specific law,” explained Bruce Mirken, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provided substantial funding for our local pro-Measure P movement. Mirken added that while the initiative does give adult pot smokers a small amount of protection, it “certainly doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee that you aren’t going to be arrested or cited.” After all, no matter what the fate of Measure P may be, smoking ganja is still against the law in Santa Barbara unless you have a medical prescription.

With city councilmembers and Wiley slated to have their private meeting in early December, both supporters and opponents of Measure P seemed resigned to a wait-and-see attitude. Lara Cassell, one of the chief organizers of the petition drive that got Measure P on the ballot, said her group has not met with the City Council since election night but added, “We think the voters of Santa Barbara sent a pretty clear message, and we look forward to working with the council [in the future].” For the SBPD’s part, McCaffrey said the issue ultimately is for “the city and their attorney to decide.” Despite the department’s concerns, McCaffrey vowed, “We are going to follow the laws and what we are told to do.”

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