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Oakland Pot Measure Seeks a Shift in Priorities

June 22, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

An alliance of marijuana legalization activists in Oakland announced Monday that they are close to placing a measure on the November ballot that would require police to essentially look the other way when dealing with marijuana possession by adults.

The measure also would require the city to regulate and collect tax revenue for adult cannabis use if the state ever allows it. The extra tax dollars would be earmarked for police and other cash-strapped municipal services.

Efforts to make marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority mirror a similar initiative approved by Seattle voters last fall. But the push for marijuana taxation is the first such effort in the nation, backers of the Oakland measure say.

"This law will keep cannabis off the streets, away from children and out of the hands of dangerous drug dealers, by making it available in licensed businesses, not on neighborhood street corners," said Dale Geringer, president of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

But foes say it is a misguided effort meant to foist a dangerous drug on an unsuspecting public.

"I'm very concerned about the message this sends to the rest of the nation and world," said Richard Meyer, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Francisco. "I think the marijuana lobby is trying to deceive the people again that marijuana use is harmless. That's far from the truth."

Under state law, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, while anyone caught with more can face felony charges. The possession of any amount of cannabis is prohibited under federal law.

The initiative's authors hope the Oakland push will serve as a springboard for a broader effort to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in California. The effort was launched by Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, a newly formed coalition of local residents and national drug policy groups -- including NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance, which is funded in part by New York billionaire George Soros, who is also financing efforts to defeat President Bush in November.

On Monday, the coalition announced it had collected more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the initiative, nearly double what was needed to place it on the ballot. A pivotal selling point, organizers said, was the argument that police time was being wasted on arresting and investigating adults for cannabis use while other city programs were being cut, including parks and libraries.

Backers also say they are tapping resentment over the Oakland City Council's decision to crack down on about a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. One section of town earned the nickname "Oaksterdam," a reference to the freewheeling Dutch city of Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal.

"When the council reduced the number of cannabis clubs, it really ignited people and got them out there to get this initiative going," said Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who supports the November ballot measure.

Brooks said police last week attempted undercover purchases at several of the medical cannabis clubs that hadn't halted their dispensary operations, underscoring the need to keep officers focused on more important crimes.

"The whole federal drug war has been a joke at best," she said. "People realize that doesn't work and we need to look to some other solutions."

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called marijuana's reputation as a relatively benign recreational drug a persistent myth perpetuated among adults who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, when cannabis use skyrocketed.

"It's out of touch with the science," said Riley. "Until those sorts of public perceptions change, we'll keep getting misguided policy based on outdated information."

Riley also said that the perception of local police exhausting their officers on low-level drug busts "is simply not true."

More than 700,000 pot arrests are made in the U.S. during a typical year. But most federal prisoners incarcerated for marijuana crimes were caught with in excess of 100 pounds of pot, Riley said, and just 1% of the inmate population in state prisons are behind bars for cannabis. "Most people who go to prison for marijuana offenses are serious drug offenders," Riley said.

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