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Fayetteville voters' approval of an initiated ordinance saying that misdemeanor marijuana possession should be the lowest priority for police is significant, supporters say, even if it will have little practical effect, as city officials say.
Denele Campbell of Fayetteville, executive director of the Drug Policy Education Group, said it was important for the city government to know that two-thirds of voters believe the police should spend little time making arrests for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana. And it's important for Fayetteville residents to know that fellow residents share their view of this sensitive issue. “The vote has great psychological impact,” Campbell said. “It's a public exhibition of what people tend to keep private.”
Not that supporters are conceding the ordinance won't have any practical effect. Similar ordinances have made a difference in other cities, according to E. Ryan Denham, who directed the pro-initiative campaign for a coalition called “Sensible Fayetteville.” Seattle has such an ordinance, he said, and that large city recorded 50 marijuana arrests last year. Fayetteville had 400. Denham said he hoped to meet with the winner of a Fayetteville mayoral runoff now in progress and gain additional support.
Before the election, the mayoral candidates and the chief of police said that approval of the initiative would make little difference, because it's state law that prohibits the possession of marijuana, and the city has no choice but to enforce state law. They also said that police already exercise discretion in making misdemeanor arrests, and that misdemeanor marijuana possession was not a high priority for the police. Denham agrees the police aren't kicking down doors to make marijuana arrests, but he said they also aren't using their discretion to refrain from arrest as often as they might.
The Sensible Fayetteville Coalition includes the Green Party of Washington County, the University of Arkansas student branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Alliance for Drug Reform Policy in Arkansas, and the Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology. Members of the coalition gathered 3,700 signatures to get their proposed ordinance on the ballot. Fliers and yard signs and a well-done video were used in the campaign for the ordinance, which includes a requirement that the Fayetteville city clerk send a letter annually to the city's state and federal legislators asking for the adoption of similar measures.
Denham also directed the successful 2006 campaign for a similar ordinance in Eureka Springs, the only other Arkansas city that has one. Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt said the ordinance has had no visible effect for the same reasons that Fayetteville officials cited — officers have always had discretion in making misdemeanor arrests, and misdemeanor marijuana possession “has never been a high priority with this department.”
Denham said he was an architecture student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville who took time off from his studies to run the marijuana campaign. He said that longtime Fayetteville residents were responsible for approval of the ordinance, not UA students. Most of the students aren't registered to vote in Fayetteville, he said.
Nine of the 10 states, cities and counties who voted last Tuesday on measures to weaken anti-marijuana laws approved those measures, Denham said. Fayetteville was in that group and so was Massachusetts, which became the 12th state to decriminalize marijuana.
Arkansas is likely a good ways from that, but the Fayetteville vote was probably the biggest victory for Arkansas drug reformers since an organized drug reform movement began in the state about 10 years ago — bigger than the Eureka Springs vote because Fayetteville itself is bigger, and because Eureka Springs has always been a tourist town, more tolerant of peculiarity than the rest of the state.