A city ordinance called “Lowest Police Priority for Marijuana” will be on the ballot Tuesday, November 7th, Santa Monica City Council decided at its meeting Tuesday, July 25th.

The action came after reviewing an impact report from Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts of the marijuana ordinance, which had resulted from an initiative petition by Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy that attained approximately 8,375 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot this year.

City Council had two options — either ratify the qualified initiative petition that would make private, adult marijuana use the “lowest police priority” and adopt the ordinance as it was submitted, or place the measure on the November 7th ballot for residents to vote on.

Councilmembers decided to direct city staff to return with a resolution and ballot language to place the measure on the ballot.

“It should go on the ballot,” said City Councilman Kevin McKeown. “I’m going to vote yes to put it on the ballot to fill our democratic requirement.”

Councilman Bobby Shriver agreed. He also pointed out that he believes alcohol is “more dangerous” than marijuana.

Mayor Robert Holbrook said he supported the motion because “the law requires me to do this,” he said.

Councilman Richard Bloom agreed that the City Council had an obligation to put the measure on the ballot, even if the council didn’t support it.

“I don’t agree with it,” Bloom said. “There are public health, public safety issues. I look forward to a serious debate on this as the ballot date nears.”

The Lowest Police Priority for Marijuana Ordinance would require the Santa Monica Police Department to use the “lowest law enforcement priority” for offenses involving private, adult (21 years and older) marijuana use. This would de-prioritize law enforcement of marijuana offenses in investigations, citations, arrests, property seizures and prosecutions in Santa Monica.

The ordinance would not apply to the use of marijuana on public property or driving under the influence of marijuana.

Additionally, it would prohibit the Santa Monica Police Department from working with state or federal agencies to do enforcement work within this lowest priority and from receiving federal funds for such work, city officials said.

About ten members of the public spoke at the July 25th council meeting, including members of Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which had sponsored the initiative petition.

Ten percent of the registered voter population was needed to qualify the measure for the ballot, Santa Monica city clerk Maria Stewart said. At the time the petition campaign began, there were 55,801 registered voters and 5,580 valid signatures were needed for qualification.

Luciano Hernandez, a member of Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy and a Santa Monica resident for 22 years, was one of those who gathered signatures for the initiative and found that people were overwhelmingly in support of the measure.

“Professionals, housewives, soccer moms were eager to sign it,” Hernandez said.

But Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts is opposed to the ordinance.

Butts said that, oftentimes, investigations that begin as small marijuana possession allegations end up being more serious crimes and that “the enforcement of existing marijuana possession laws provides the probable cause needed for a police officer to investigate and detect more serious drug-related crimes, to apprehend dangerous and armed criminals and improve the quality of life of people living, working and visiting the City of Santa Monica.”

If private, adult marijuana use becomes “lowest police priority,” the police will no longer be allowed to investigate these matters.

However, many believe that making marijuana the lowest police priority would help the police department focus on more important crimes, and Hernandez, who says he is a medical marijuana user himself, is one of them.

“It gives them [the police] more time to focus on what’s really important in the community,” Hernandez said. “There will be more resources to actually solve real crime in Santa Monica.

“Santa Monica citizens don’t want our police to waste their time and our tax dollars arresting, jailing and prosecuting nonviolent marijuana users. I think the police will eventually come around to see our point of view.

“The initiative doesn’t stop them from doing their job.”

Nicki La Rosa, also a member of Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, agrees. She says she believes that focusing on personal, adult marijuana offenses is “a lot of wasted time.”

A telephone survey of 400 registered voters in the city of Santa Monica conducted in December by Evans/McDonough, indicated that 73 percent agreed that “adults that use marijuana but otherwise follow the law should not be criminalized.”

Additionally, 76 percent in the survey thought that the laws and regulations for marijuana should not be more strict than laws and regulations for alcohol and 81 percent agreed that “the federal government’s war on drugs has failed.”

“Santa Monica is a really progressive city and the majority of people aren’t happy with the current, failed drug war,” Hernandez said. “By passing this initiative, Santa Monica voters can help to create a sensible alternative to the war on drugs.”

This measure was first considered at the June 27th City Council meeting, when the council directed staff to prepare an impact report on the effects of this potential ordinance and to reconvene over the matter in July.

In the coming weeks, city staff will return to the City Council with a resolution and ballot language to put this measure on the November 7th ballot.

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