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Arkansas Hamlet Puts Pot's Priority to a Vote

Misdemeanor arrests for marijuana might sink low on the list for the Eureka Springs police.

October 10, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Here in the heart of the Bible Belt, where local laws often restrict the sale of liquor, grass-roots campaigns to decriminalize marijuana have gone nowhere. But to the surprise of pot enthusiasts across the state, residents in the small tourist town of Eureka Springs will vote next month on whether to make misdemeanor marijuana arrests the city's lowest law enforcement priority.

Local leaders of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the group that collected the signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot, can hardly believe their day has come.

Volunteers have been circulating petitions for years, but "it's been like talking to a brick wall," said Glen Schwarz, NORML's Little Rock director. "The jails in Arkansas are full of pot smokers caught by people who think they've arrested Al Capone.... Maybe this will crack open the door."

First-time offenders caught with 1 ounce or less of pot in Arkansas can get up to 1 year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. The Eureka Springs initiative seeks to make possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana akin to a minor traffic violation, punishable by community service or drug counseling.

But no one is lighting up in celebration yet -- at least not in public. Many locals are unhappy that Eureka Springs is in the pot vanguard while Arkansas is battling a major methamphetamine problem. And local police say the vote won't matter because state laws governing marijuana possession trump local ordinances.

"A lot of people here don't see anything wrong with marijuana, but it's against the law to possess it in Arkansas. Until they change the state law, we're going to uphold it," said Sgt. Shelley Summers of the Eureka Springs Police Department.

Keith Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970, said although police can "ignore the will of the voters, I'm not sure they will want to." If the initiative passes, he said, "a majority of residents will be saying that law enforcement resources should be spent on more serious crime. If the mayor and other city leaders don't understand that, the town can vote in people who do."

Ryan Denham, a volunteer who is organizing the Eureka Springs campaign, said he would think about that later. Right now he's focusing on the November election, getting together mailers that will be sent to every voter in the town. "We barely have legal alcohol in Arkansas. But if anyplace here has a shot, it's Eureka," he said.

Tucked into a remote hollow in the northwest Arkansas hills, Eureka Springs has been called the most eccentric town in the state, the largest open-air asylum in the country, a place where misfits fit.

The town's population of 2,278 is a mix of conservative Christians and aging hippies who, as they tell it, wandered into the area around 1973 and never left.

A seven-story statue of Jesus overlooks the quaint Victorian village where senior citizens on bus tours shop for crafts and T-shirts -- and where gays and lesbians celebrating one of the town's many "diversity weekends" walk arm-in-arm on the narrow, winding streets.

Because the town is a hodgepodge of people and opinions, no one really knows how the vote will turn out. There are plenty like Doug Green, 47, who shrugged and said: "Pot isn't a big deal here. It just isn't. I don't think that law will change anything or make people smoke more. It's what goes on here all the time anyway."

Bill Hunter pulled a copy of "Medicinal Plants and Herbs" from the cab of his pickup, and thumbed through the pages until he found a section on the beneficial properties of cannabis. "Here, this is it," he said, placing a stubby finger on the passage. "People should read this. It's all right here.... There's a big meth problem in Arkansas. That's what the police should be spending their time and money on, not marijuana."

But, said Jim Evans, methamphetamine abuse is exactly why drug laws should not be relaxed. "I don't see how it can do anything but hurt our chances of ever getting the drug problem under control," he said of the initiative. "This seems to be going backward, not forward. When I heard about this initiative, I just shook my head and said, 'Oh, why us?' "

Grocery store butcher Ronnie Henderson, 42, said he knows why. "There's a lot of hippies in this town," he said, tending to a brisket-filled barbecue pit in the store parking lot. "They got it on the ballot and all the sudden we're voting on whether to make it easier on people who use drugs.

"It's the law, and you don't just change it like that. If it passes, this town won't be a family tourist place anymore."

The Eureka Springs initiative is a first for Arkansas, Denham said. Cities such as Seattle and Oakland have already passed initiatives that make arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana a low priority. Voters in Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara will vote on similar measures in November.

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