Thursday, July 07, 2011


Measure making marijuana 'lowest police priority' advances
By Casey Conley
Jul 06, 2011 12:00 am

Sensible Portland, the group behind a citizen-petition to make marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for city police, says it has gathered enough signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot.

In a Monument Square press conference yesterday, the group’s leadership said they are hoping the proposal will spur “an adult conversation” about marijuana policy that could spread well beyond city limits.

“To be clear, we hope that this measure is a step toward the eventual end of prohibition of marijuana in this country,” said John Eder, a spokesman for Sensible Portland and a former Green Party state representative. “This local ordinance isn't a small thing.

“Most movements start locally, and this movement will have its effect on the state, … and it will have its effect nationally, as Maine joins the chorus of states and cities that are going on record saying they want to end the prohibition of marijuana for persons over the age of 21,” Eder continued.

Sensible Portland’s proposal would amend city statutes to codify that possession-level marijuana offenses, for non-violent adults who are 21 or older, would be the lowest enforcement priority for city police.

A summary of the ordinance provided yesterday by Sensible Portland said the ordinance aimed to prohibit police from arresting or fining non-violent adults 21 or older for possession-level offenses, or “ascertaining the possession” of marijuana or paraphernalia.

Exemptions to those provisions are built in to the ordinance for persons who are either committing a violent act, or have a previous conviction for a violent crime.

Under Maine law, possession of a "usable amount" of the drug — less than 2.5 ounces — is considered a civil penalty punishable by fines up to $1,000. Possession of drug paraphernalia is also a civil penalty, punishable by a $300 fine.

Marijuana-related infractions can escalate depending on the nature of the offense. Possession of more than 2.5 ounces is considered intent to sell, which can lead to jail time and fines of up to $20,000. Sale of paraphernalia can also lead to jail time.

The ordinance does not explictly seek to prohibit police from intervening in drug sales that involve marijuana.

By directing police to focus on matters other than petty possession, the group hopes additional resources will be focused on violent crime and “harder” drugs. The measure also aims to protect medical marijuana patients from harassment if federal authorities crack down on legal use of the drug.

“We don’t want to take it for granted, we want to codify that this is our lowest law enforcement priority, because with a new incoming chief and a new incoming mayor, those priorities could shift,” Eder said.

The proposed ordinance doesn’t prohibit local police from interacting with federal drug authorities. There is no sanction against city police for ignoring the ordinance, should it pass.

As drafted, the ordinance calls on the mayor to report back to the city council each year with details on how well the ordinance is being followed.

The Sensible Portland measure was based on existing ordinances in places like Seattle, Oakland and Denver, as well as policies enacted in smaller municipalities in Montana and Arkansas.

Although most city ordinances aren’t created through referendum, there have been some notable exceptions over the years. For example, city residents in 1987 voted nearly 2-1 to enact new zoning rules designed to protect the working waterfront.

Over the past five weeks, a handful of volunteers with Sensible Portland have collected more than 2,100 signatures — well above the 1,500-signature threshold required by city statute. The city clerk now has 15 days to verify those signatures.

If that occurs, the measure will go to the city council, which can either vote to approve the ordinance amendments (something seen as unlikely) or place it on the Nov. 8 city ballot, which will also decide the city’s first elected mayor in more than 80 years.

Anna Trevorrow, a former charter commissioner and state Green Party chair, said yesterday that she and other volunteers witnessed plenty of support in Portland for initiatives like this one that "get us closer to progressive marijuana policy reform."

"We met with great response from Portland voters who were signing eagerly, who were not sure why marijuana was not already legal," she said, adding, “We feel that this goes beyond decriminalization."

She said the group has not discussed the proposal with Portland police.

Assistant Chief Mike Sauschuck — who will take over administration of Portland police department once Chief James Craig leaves for his new post in Cincinnati — declined to comment on the proposed amendments.

In an email, he did say that the department is “looking forward to working with the City Council and staff in regards to this issue but we have had no discussions with 'Sensible Portland' and have no official comment at this point.”

Councilor Dave Marshall, who sits on the council’s Public Safety Committee, said yesterday that he is “supportive of the petitioners and their effort to bring this to referendum.”

“I think the referendum is the most appropriate place for this issue to be addressed,” he said.

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