By Alfa · Aug 27, 2005 ·
  1. Alfa

    Police Chief, However, Says Idea May Have Merit

    Lawrence's police chief thinks it could have "great merit." The mayor supports it, and so does the county's top prosecutor.

    But George Bush's White House says a proposal to take a streamlined approach to marijuana-possession crimes in Lawrence is a dangerous idea.

    Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C., told the Journal-World on Thursday that marijuana was a "harmful drug" that should be strictly regulated.

    "Marijuana is a great source of ignorance for many people," Lemaitre said.

    "They think that it's a soft drug or harmless drug, that law enforcement is wasting its resources by prosecuting these cases. That's not true."

    A newly formed group, Drug Policy Forum of Kansas, is asking the City Commission to start sending marijuana-possession and drug-paraphernalia cases from District Court into the more informal Municipal Court. The group argues the change is needed to cut prosecution costs and keep college students from being denied financial aid under a 1998 federal law.

    Lemaitre, the White House spokesman, said most efforts like the one in Lawrence weren't grass-roots, but were part of a national campaign funded, in part, by activists such as billionaire George Soros. Soros sits on the board of directors of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is working to liberalize drug laws.

    The local group's director, Laura A. Green, said that, so far, the group was using a combination of personal money and volunteer work for its efforts. But she said the group was seeking funding from national groups.

    Marijuana enforcement is seen as an increasingly high priority for the federal government, according to a study released in May by The Sentencing Project, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

    The study found that marijuana arrests grew by 113 percent between 1990 and

    2002 -- while overall arrests decreased by 3 percent -- and that the country spends an estimated $4 billion each year on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana offenders.

    During an online Journal-World chat on Thursday, Police Chief Ron Olin indicated he wasn't opposed outright to the local proposal and said that, if done well, it could have "great merit."

    "I don't want to see anything that's contrary to state law or somehow implies that we are some sanctuary that has legalized marijuana," Olin said after the chat. "I want to see exactly what the proposal is."

    Olin said officers routinely happen upon small amounts of marijuana by chance. When that happens, he said, they must go through the trouble of making an arrest, filling out an evidence sheet, writing police reports and writing affidavits for court.

    If the city changes the procedure, officers likely would be required only to issue the suspect a notice to appear in municipal court: a piece of paper similar to a traffic ticket. Olin said the change could give "more latitude in the enforcement action than we have at the present time."

    Bruce Beale, director of DCCCA, a drug and alcohol treatment program in Lawrence, said he would have no problem changing how drug violations are adjudicated, as long as the change didn't make it easier to get away with marijuana use.

    Marijuana and alcohol, he said, are "gateway drugs" to more dangerous substances.

    "Prosecutions are typically a deterrent," Beale said.

    The City Commission is expected to discuss the idea at a Sept. 6 meeting.

    Olin said the city's legal staff and members of a city-county drug-investigation unit were still looking into the details of how the proposal might work.

    City prosecutor Jerry Little has said that penalties in municipal court would be comparable to those in District Court and, if convicted, the defendant still would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Little said he's asked Dist. Atty. Charles Branson to send him information about how marijuana cases are typically handled in District Court.

    - Staff writer Joel Mathis contributed to this report.

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