Last week, Fayetteville voters approved by referendum a measure making the enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority of law enforcement. Local law enforcement officials say this initiative will have no effect on how they do their jobs, though proponents of the initiative hope that will change.
"Hopefully, the police officers will listen to the people," said Jacob Holloway, field organizer for Sensible Fayetteville. "Without their compliance, this resolution really has no teeth."
Because the university is a state entity, local ordinances will not affect how the UA Police Department enforces state laws, said Vance Rice, UAPD officer of investigative services. Enforcement of marijuana laws was not a high priority to begin with, he said. The UAPD will typically investigate if they received complaints of marijuana use or see it out in the open, Rice said. They will also search residence hall rooms if they suspect marijuana is being used.
"If we can build a case for it we will get search warrants," Rice said. "I really doubt the university will ask us to back away."
The initiative will also have no legal affect on the city at large because it is in conflict with the mayor's constitutional right to enforce state law, said Kit Williams, city attorney. The mayor has the right to set law enforcement priorities, and neither ballot initiatives nor the city council can impose on those priorities.
"I think the ordinance was passed to express the citizens' view on marijuana law," Williams said. "To have an effect, it must be done at a state level."
The initiative can be enforced, and it has been done in other cities, Holloway said. After passing a lowest priority initiative, the city of Seattle saw arrests for marijuana violations drop from 500 in a year to 50, he said. A county in Montana that passed such an initiative enforced it after the city council passed a resolution asking the mayor to do so, Holloway said. Sensible Fayetteville has asked the local city council to do the same.
"The initiative makes marijuana a low priority," said Greg Tabor, chief of the Fayetteville Police Department. "It has always been a low priority."
Tabor contrasted how marijuana violations are pursued by police with how driving while intoxicated is dealt with. To combat driving while intoxicated, the police go out and look for violations, but they make arrests for marijuana violations whenever they come across it, Tabor said.
Though proponents of the initiative claimed that the fact that more than 400 arrests were made for marijuana possession last year proves that it was not a low priority, this has to be compared to the more than 1,100 arrests made for driving while intoxicated, Tabor said.
The most important part of the initiative is that the city clerk is now required to annually notify the state legislature, the governor, Arkansas senators, this district's congressional representative and the president of the United States that the city has passed this initiative and requests the change of state and federal marijuana laws, Holloway said.
Members of Sensible Fayetteville hope that this is the start of a movement to decriminalize marijuana in the state as it was done in Texas and Mississippi, he said. Two members of the Arkansas House of Representatives have already started talking about a decriminalization bill, he said.
"Sensible Fayetteville is really a stepping stone towards this," Holloway said.
Lindsley Smith, representative from Fayetteville, has talked with another legislator about such a bill, but they have yet to draft anything, Smith said in an e-mail interview.
Total decriminalization would be difficult because of federal laws, but laws limiting the number of long-term lock-ups have been passed in other states, she said. Furthermore, some states have considered decriminalizing marijuana in certain areas, such as medical marijuana.
"I think the legislature would be open to ideas," Smith said, "but whether the votes are there for any legislation - it is hard to tell until a bill is drafted and it is reviewed by legislators to get a perspective on where the votes would be."
Holloway thinks a decriminalization bill will likely have to be passed through a ballot initiative, he said. Polls have shown that 62 percent of Arkansans believe that punishments for marijuana use should be reduced, Holloway said.
A recent Zogby poll found that 52 percent of Arkansans favored decriminalization, though there was a margin of error of 4 percent, he said.
"The war on drugs in this country is lost," Holloway said.
Issue date: 11/14/08