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Little Rock board to study proposal making pot offenses low priority

by Joseph Flaherty | May 18, 2021 at 7:17 a.m.
FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2019 file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif.

The Little Rock Board of Directors is scheduled this evening to review a proposed ordinance from City Director Ken Richardson that would make misdemeanor marijuana offenses the lowest priority for local law enforcement authorities.

The proposal represents Richardson's third attempt at getting a policy change on marijuana enforcement passed by the city board.

Versions of the measure sponsored by Richardson have failed to win the support of a majority of city directors twice before, first in 2018 and again in 2019.

As part of two interviews conducted via phone Monday, Richardson said "hopefully, third time is the charm."

According to the text of the ordinance, the measure would "[m]ake investigations, citations, arrests, property seizures, etc. for adult misdemeanor marijuana offenses, where the possession, or use of marijuana was intended only for adult, personal use, the lowest law enforcement and prosecutorial priority within the City."

Upon approval, the ordinance would require notification be made to state and federal elected officials who represent all or a portion of Little Rock.

The ordinance would not apply to laws dealing with those accused of driving under the influence, operating machinery while impaired or carrying out violent or gun-related crimes.

The introduction to the ordinance says, in part, that an estimated $30 million is spent to enforce marijuana laws in the state. It notes that "the use of law enforcement resources would be better spent on programs that deal with serious and violent crimes, victim advocacy and protection; and crime prevention."

Since 2007, Richardson has represented Ward 2, which encompasses a south-central section of Little Rock.

Richardson cited the disproportionate likelihood for Black people -- particularly poor Black people -- to be jailed for marijuana offenses compared to white individuals as his rationale for pursuing the ordinance.

He said he had not spoken with Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey about the measure. Richardson said he did not know what the chief's position was going to be in advance of today's meeting. Spokesmen for the Little Rock Police Department did not respond when asked for comment Monday.

According to Richardson, since 2015, arrests for marijuana have increased significantly in the city.

He described it as a waste of valuable police time and resources "with respect to having them arrest and transport and book-in people for small amounts of marijuana that in fact most cases end up being misdemeanors."

He added that their time could be better spent dealing with more serious crimes. The policy also would free up jail space, Richardson argued.

Richardson said he had not spoken to Mayor Frank Scott Jr. about the proposed ordinance and did not know what his stance was.

Representatives for Scott did not respond Monday when asked via email about the mayor's stance on Richardson's proposed ordinance.

Additionally, Richardson noted that other municipalities have adopted a similar approach to marijuana enforcement.

Arkansas voters opted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, but unlike a number of other jurisdictions, recreational use of marijuana remains illegal in the state.

When board members discussed a version of the ordinance in 2018, then-police chief Kenton Buckner along with the mayor at the time, Mark Stodola, said they opposed the measure.

Buckner referred to how the smell of marijuana gave officers probable cause to search a vehicle, which sometimes led to more serious charges related to guns or drugs, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported at the time.

The last time a version of Richardson's proposed ordinance was reviewed, board members voted it down in a 5-4 decision. Since that meeting, at-large City Director Antwan Phillips has joined the city board, replacing Gene Fortson.

"I hadn't spoken with him directly, but I'm hopeful that that would help us," Richardson said of Phillips joining the board.

A 5-5 split on the 10-member city board would allow the mayor to break the tie.

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