The City of Santa Monica passed a law that calssifies marijuana-related police calls the lowest priority response. Photo by Benjamin Brayfield (photo by Benjamin Brayfield)

CITYWIDE — Since Measure Y took effect in July, 2007, the Santa Monica Police Department has not issued any citations for offenses involving the adult, personal use of marijuana inside private residences.

Supporters of the “lowest law enforcement priority” measure said that means it’s served its purpose.

Bill Zimmerman, president of Santa Monica-based political consulting firm Zimmerman and Markman and campaign manager for Proposition 215 — which legalized medical marijuana use in California in 1996 — called the lack of citations a “very positive outcome.”

“There’s no harm done by individuals smoking marijuana in the privacy of their homes,” he said. “Why would we waste our police resources on an offense that 10 million Americans — including our three most recent presidents — have admitted engaging in?”

Before the 2006 election, in which 65.28 percent of Santa Monica voters approved the measure, SMPD asserted that personal adult in-residence use was already a low priority, and that putting the measure on the books would only lead to higher costs. No SMPD statistics on personal use arrests and citations before 2007 are available, but Sgt. Jay Trisler said the ability to respond to personal use calls did lead to larger arrests.

“Without the measure the police could always change their policy and start prosecuting these people,” countered Susanne Griffin, a member of Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy. “We don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t been passed.”

As it turns out, there have not been any significant costs associated with the measure, Trisler confirmed.

“There was an initial cost and time investment associated with setting up the reporting system,” he said, “but no incidents has meant only nominal ongoing costs.”

SMPD’s ability to participate in state task forces and apply for grants has also not been affected.

Still, Trisler, who is president of the Police Officers Association, stands by his initial assessment of the measure — “a solution looking for a problem.”

“It imposes administrative rules for something that isn’t really there,” he said. “It just took one component of enforcement — inside residences — and delayed it due to prioritization of calls.”

Another concern with the measure was that it would limit the police’s ability to respond to larger drug crimes, such as growing or dealing marijuana. Trisler said there have been no big busts since the measure took effect.

“Previously, we could respond in time to get there while someone was still smoking,” Trisler said. “Now, we can’t usually respond while the crime is still occurring, and that’s resulting in possibly not finding larger crimes.”

City Council member Bob Holbrook, who was mayor when Measure Y was passed, called the measure “falling into a deep black hole.”

“Virtually everyone who’s an addict started out on marijuana,” he said. “I just can’t imagine why we would want to ignore the problems associated with a drug that’s illegal.

“A girl that worked for me told me she had no memory of the ninth grade because she was stoned on marijuana every day at school,” he continued. “I’m not a conservative person but I see so much of it that it makes me very conservative in that area.”

Holbrook acknowledged the harsh effects associated with marijuana citations.

“It can affect your ability to get jobs for the rest of your life, and I hate to see that happen,” he said. “But I don’t think we should encourage this.”

Zimmerman disagreed.

“Drug use is rampant in our society. The problem is not how to reduce usage — we’ve been trying to do that for 40 years and we’ve failed,” he said, citing a public opinion poll that indicates 14 million Americans have used marijuana in the past month. “The problem is how to reduce the harms associated with the war against drug use.”

Smoke on the horizon

Santa Monica residents reaffirmed Measure Y’s passage by a wide margin.

“Most people around here are using marijuana for medicinal purposes, which is absolutely harmless,” said Carl Homme, who lives on Fifth and Bay streets. “I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to prosecute those users — but it’s a different story if you’re growing hundreds of pounds of it.”

Homme said marijuana smoke only bothers him if too many people are smoking in an enclosed space — the same way he feels about cigarettes.

“Weed definitely has grilled skunk potential,” he said. “But I don’t care at all if people smoke outside in their backyards.”

Marjorie Howard, who lives on 12th Street, agreed.

“Smoking pot is as common as brushing your teeth,” she said. “I’m a grandmother’s age, and I can tell you that many of my peers feel the same way.

“It shouldn’t be any priority,” she added. “It’s the most harmless pastime I’ve come across in 75 years.”

Trisler maintained that the measure may have a negative effect on “quality of life” for residents who dislike the smell of marijuana.

The measure was backed in Santa Monica by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the U.S. The project’s ultimate goal is to tax and regulate marijuana, a substance they say is less harmful than alcohol.

“Marijuana prohibition gives us the worst of all possible worlds — it’s widely and regularly used, but unregulated and untaxed,” said MPP spokesperson Bruce Mirken. “Given California’s budget situation, that’s just insane.”

According to the L.A. Times, a pot tax could pump as much as $1.4 billion into California’s floundering budget.

“MPP didn’t feel it was right to introduce legislation at the time to legalize marijuana, but I think that’s the eventual goal,” Griffin said. “One of the purposes of putting this initiative on the ballot was to let legislators know around the state and country that there would be public support for legalization.”

And that day may be closer than ever before, Mirken said, citing a poll that shows 56 percent of Californians in favor of legalizing the drug — a majority for the first time.

On Tuesday, Oakland pot activists took the first official step toward legalizing marijuana in California. The proposed ballot measure would allow adults to possess up to an ounce of pot and grow marijuana for personal use on home garden plots of up to 25 square feet.

The measure needs almost 434,000 signatures to be included on the ballot in November 2010.

Lowest priority measures have been passed in other cities and counties, including Seattle, Oakland, West Hollywood, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, Denver, Eureka and Fayetteville, Ark.; Missoula County, Mont. and Traverse City, Mich. for medical marijuana only.

“These measures take the police off of these relatively trivial offenses and give them time to devote to crimes that actually endanger people,” Mirken said. “That’s where we think police should be concentrating their time, not on someone deciding to relax with a joint instead of a martini.”

SMPD has filed weekly reports since Measure Y took effect. Read them here: www.santamonicapd.org/Press_Info/MeasureYReports/index.htm.

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