In the coming weeks, a Little Rock city board member will attempt to get a new policy adopted that would make arrests for marijuana use by adults the lowest priority of the Police Department.
Ward 2 City Director Ken Richardson has been trying to introduce such a measure for the past few months. He's been working with the city attorney to draft an ordinance. He now intends to have the measure to the city Board of Directors for a March 20 vote if the ordinance can be prepared by then.
His proposed ordinance would make investigations, citations, arrests, property seizures and prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana offenses, in cases where the drug was intended for adult personal use, the city's lowest law enforcement priority.
Richardson said misdemeanor drug arrests have unintended consequences, such as making it difficult or impossible for people to get student loans, continue their education or get jobs that pay well.
"One of the things I think contributes to a lot of the violence in our community is unemployment and underemployment, and I think that black mark on your record creates long-term consequences that make you more disconnected from society," he said.
He also pointed out that people with low-level marijuana possession charges can contribute to overcrowding of the county jail if they are unable to make bail.
Little Rock police made 115 misdemeanor marijuana arrests in 2012 in which that was the only violation. They made 225 such arrests from January through November of 2016, a 95 percent increase from the 2012 totals, according to a November 2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.
A Little Rock Police Department spokesman said last week that more recent totals weren't yet available.
There are at least 17 cities across the United States with some form of low-priority enforcement policy. Two Arkansas cities are among them.
In 2006, the majority of Eureka Springs voters approved a ballot initiative to make marijuana arrests a low priority there. Two years later Fayetteville voters approved the same policy via ballot.
The Fayetteville measure said, "decades of arresting millions of marijuana users had failed to control marijuana use or reduce its availability and otherwise law-abiding adults were being imprisoned for these nonviolent offenses, clogging courts and jails."
"The arrests and imprisonment result in loss of jobs and educational opportunities," the ballot measure said.
It said there were 402 marijuana arrests in Fayetteville in 2005 and that the state of Arkansas was spending $30 million in taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a given year.
An updated look at Fayetteville shows that adopting low-priority policies won't always result in fewer arrests, however.
There were 495 arrests involving marijuana possession in Fayetteville in 2008, the year voters approved the low priority initiative. There were 691 such arrests in 2017, according to data provided by the Fayetteville Police Department, a nearly 40 percent increase.
Those numbers include both felony and misdemeanor cases. The low priority policy only applies to cases of adults using marijuana where that is the only misdemeanor charge.
Fayetteville officers do not specifically target misdemeanor marijuana offenders, but they don't overlook marijuana offenses when they come across them either, Police Department spokesman Sgt. Anthony Murphy said.
"Officers still arrest people and, in most misdemeanor cases, they issue that person a citation," Murphy said.
As for the increased number of arrests since the policy was adopted?
"As we all know the legalization of marijuana in surrounding states in the past couple years has made it more prevalent on the streets of Fayetteville, therefore officers run into it more often," Murphy said.
No states in or near the South have legalized recreational marijuana use. Both Arkansas and Louisiana have legalized medical marijuana, although it is not yet accessible in Arkansas, and any form of the drug that can be smoked is not legal in Louisiana.
The states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
About half of the U.S. cities that have adopted low-priority enforcement policies for marijuana are cities where it has since been legalized completely. Most of the cities that adopted such policies did so through voter initiatives.
Only two have done it the way Richardson is proposing -- through a vote by elected officials. They are San Francisco and West Hollywood, Calif.
The cities that have previously passed low-priority enforcement policies and the years they passed them are: Seattle, 2003; Oakland, Calif., 2004; Columbia, Mo., 2004; Santa Barbara, Calif., 2006; Santa Cruz, Calif. 2006; San Francisco, 2006; Santa Monica, Calif., 2006; West Hollywood, Calif., 2006; Eureka Springs, 2006; Missoula County, Mont., 2006; Denver, 2007; Fayetteville, 2008; Hawaii County, Hawaii, 2008; Hailey, Idaho, 2010; Kalamazoo, Mich., 2011; Tacoma, Wash., 2011; and Ypsilanti, Mich., 2012.
Despite Missoula County's ordinance, the prosecutor there began prosecuting people for marijuana possession again after lobbying the state legislature for a bill that says local ballot initiatives cannot determine police priorities.
If Little Rock were to pass an ordinance, it could not direct the local prosecutor to cease prosecution of misdemeanor arrests. The city doesn't have control over the prosecutor's office or the authority to prosecute criminal offenses.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter said he has some issues with Richardson's proposed ordinance.
In a December memo to Richardson, Carpenter opined that the city Board of Directors would be acting outside its authority to enact such a measure.
He said the Little Rock Police Department's rules and regulations do not permit an officer to ignore the enforcement of a law.
"If such an ordinance existed in Little Rock, then it would create a constant tension, because the Chief is directed to ignore enforcement of the law notwithstanding City and state requirements that he not do so," Carpenter said.
He also said the city could be ineligible or disqualified from receiving federal grant money if it directed police to not enforce a particular law.
Richardson disagreed with Carpenter. He explained that his ordinance would set marijuana offenses as low priority; it wouldn't decriminalize the drug or ask police to not enforce or ignore the law.
The policy would merely be "establishing the pursuit of low-level marijuana simple possession offenses as the lowest law enforcement priority," Richardson wrote in an email to Carpenter.
When area television stations aired a segment about Richardson's proposed ordinance in December, At-large City Director Joan Adcock sent it to other board members and wrote: "This is NOT what the people of SW wants," referring to southwest Little Rock.
Ward 7 Director B.J. Wyrick replied, "I have not heard this in my area either. Most folks are appreciative of the LRPD support. In fact, would like to see more coverage in Ward 7. Not just drug enforcement but all enforcement."
Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner declined to comment on the proposed ordinance.
"My job is to enforce the laws of our city, state, and constitution. Any concerns I have with any ordinances would be addressed through the proper avenues," he said.
Metro on 03/05/2018