Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit by the City of Santa Barbara against a woman who organized a ballot initiative in that would give marijuana offenses by adults the lowest law enforcement priority. Heather Poet, the woman named in the lawsuit, filed a motion to strike the suit based on the state’s anti-SLAPP statute, which prevents strategic lawsuits that would limit public participation in the political process. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project attorney who represented Poet praised the decision, calling it a “resounding affirmation of voters’ right to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement.”
Anderle got right into the heart of the matter – the constitutionality of the law -something often common in an anti-SLAPP motion, according to city attorney Stephen Wiley. In throwing out the case, citing the state’s anti-SLAPP laws, Anderle also passed judgment on Measure P, finding it a “proper legislative enactment.”
Poet filed a ballot initiative petition last year which became Measure P. In addition to making marijuana offenses by adults the police department’s lowest law enforcement priority, Measure P – which passed in November with more than 65 percent of the vote – established an oversight committee and prohibited the city from accepting funding which would go toward investigating adult marijuana offenses. Poet has stressed, and Anderle reinforced in his ruling, that Measure P didn’t decriminalize marijuana possession, just made it the lowest priority of enforcement. The law doesn’t apply to those driving under the influence or public use.
The ruling “affirms that people in Santa Barbara, and throughout America, can protect their communities by having police focus on serious crime, rather than marijuana offenses,” Poet said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union. According to the ACLU, at least 11 cities and counties since 2000 have enacted similar legislation to Santa Barbara’s when it comes to treating certain marijuana offenses.
There will be no changes to the city’s policies, as the changes the new initiative brings have already been implemented and are up and running.
The city wasn’t looking for damages or money from the suit, according to Wiley, but was seeking to find out if the new ordinance was constitutional. “We got our question answered,” he said.
But things looked a little differently to Poet. “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,” Poet said. “But this decision proves we do have a voice and we should never be afraid to use it.”
Wiley said it wasn’t a matter of bullying a particular person, but rather the need to name a defendant in the lawsuit. The only other choice the city had was to refuse to implement the measure, something the city wasn’t interested in. “The council didn’t want to ignore the voters’ choice,” Wiley said.