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Marijuana Ignored by the Man?

New Initiative Would De-Prioritize Pot Busts

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On Tuesday morning, February 7, Chris Iverson quietly filed a city initiative petition to de-prioritize pot arrests in Portland. If it passes, the new law would "make adult marijuana-related offenses the lowest law enforcement priority in the City of Portland," and would establish a citizen's oversight committee to ensure the directive is being followed by cops and the district attorney.

"It's a very polite message to the police to not arrest or prosecute adults for marijuana, because there are other priorities," explains Iverson, a longtime marijuana activist who's also running for city council. "The police should first and foremost be going after violent criminals and the huge methamphetamine problem."

The initiative is still a "prospective" petition—it needs to be validated by the city before signature sheets can be circulated. Assuming the petition passes those technical hurdles, however, Iverson and the rest of the Citizens for a Safer Portland—the committee backing the proposal—will have until July 7 to collect 26,691 signatures.

That shouldn't be too difficult, considering the support Portland voters have shown for marijuana law reforms in the past. Fifty-six percent of Portland voters backed Measure 33, the 2004 expansion of Oregon's Medical Marijuana Act, according to Iverson.

"We're definitely going to win this thing," Iverson says. "It will resonate with the voters. People in Portland are so progressive and visionary."

With the exception of a few specific pot-related laws—like those that involve minors, offenses within 1,000 feet of a school, or within 100 feet of a business that requests police intervention—the ordinance would "essentially remove the ability for the police to prosecute any adult 21 and over for any marijuana crimes."

However, the initiative doesn't legalize pot. "We aren't suggesting we start selling it at 7-11," Iverson says. Instead, it moves pot offenses to the bottom of the priority list.

"The police will try to say it's already their lowest priority," Iverson says. "But the fact is, the figure from Multnomah County last year showed they arrested almost 1,000 people" for pot-related offenses. (The Multnomah County district attorney spokesperson did not return a call by press time to confirm that number.)

Iverson has already met with Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark McDonnell, and wants to engage the police and city officials on the issue in a "high-integrity" campaign. Police spokesperson Detective Paul Dolbey declined to comment on the initiative.

Seattle was the first city to pass an initiative to de-prioritize pot busts, back in 2003. That initiative—Initiative 75—drew the ire of the US Drug Czar John Walters. City officials there, like Seattle's city attorney, argued that pot busts were already a low priority, and the law was unnecessary.

More than two years later, "Initiative 75 has worked exactly as promised," says Dominic Holden, chair of the committee behind the initiative, and member of the review panel that's overseen its implementation. The Seattle law only applied to pot possession, and arrests dropped from 178 court filings in 2003—the year the initiative passed—to 59 filings in 2004, a 67 percent reduction. That's an impact Holden is proud of: "When there are 100 or 200 fewer people arrested each year, that makes a huge difference in their lives."

Just as important, the police resources that went into those arrests and prosecutions "are now directed to serious and dangerous crimes," Holden explains. "I think it is comforting to everyone, regardless of whether or not they use marijuana, that police have more time and energy to focus on things that actually pose a threat to their communities."

Seattle was the first in a series of cities to take marijuana law reform into its own hands—and the idea has since picked up steam. In 2004, Oakland passed a similar measure, and Detroit legalized medical marijuana. Last year, Denver passed a law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

"It's very difficult to pass a statewide initiative," Holden explains. "But you have very progressive cities that don't want their legal priorities directed at something that doesn't address the needs of their city."

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