Initiative would direct county to ease up on pot

An Ashland man wants to make adult marijuana offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement officials in Jackson County.

Daniel Morrow has submitted an initiative to the county clerk's office that would do just that if it is approved by voters in an upcoming election.

"It is time for Jackson County's laws to reflect the priorities of its citizens. Citizens of Jackson County believe that spending money on the enforcement of misdemeanor possession of marijuana is a waste of budget resources, and that public policy should reflect this," Morrow said in an e-mail message.

The initiative, filed March 5, calls for an ordinance that would make adult marijuana use the "lowest law enforcement priority" for county law enforcement operations, such as the Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's Office — but not city police departments, according to District Attorney Mark Huddleston.

Reducing the time county law enforcement officials spend on minor pot offenses would allow them to concentrate more on violent crimes, Morrow said.

"The goal is to make Jackson County a safer place by reducing budget stresses," he said. "This will allow our police to spend their time with more serious crimes, while maintaining their current level of staffing."

To get a measure on the ballot, backers of the initiative must gather signatures from 4,624 registered county voters, or 6 percent of people who cast votes in the county in the last election for governor, which occurred in 2006.

Similar measures have been approved by voters in several cities, including Seattle and Denver, but this may be one of the first initiatives at the county level, said Anthony Johnson, political director for Voter Power, an Oregon medical marijuana advocacy group that has an office in Medford.

"In places that have passed such initiatives, they have found that they save money with less arrests and prosecutions of low-level marijuana offenders," Johnson said. He helped write and pass a similar measure in Columbia, Miss., in 2004 while he was attending law school there, he said.

"Even though Jackson County is more conservative than, say, Seattle, wanting to prioritize law enforcement resources toward more serious crimes isn't necessarily a conservative or liberal position," he said.

If a measure did pass, it would be the first such measure to be approved in Oregon, Johnson said.

Huddleston said he opposes the initiative because he thinks it is unneeded and would be ineffective.

"I think it's a waste of time and completely unnecessary and I'm opposed to it," he said. "The bottom line is that law enforcement doesn't spend a lot of time chasing small amounts of marijuana anyway."

However, he said, sometimes law enforcement officials need to start drug investigations by convicting lower-level users, in order to get to dangerous dealers.

"If you're looking to identify the person who's dealing drugs to the kids down by the school, sometimes you start with the person who has small amounts," he said.

"There are just so many facets to an investigation that's very difficult to micromanage how an investigation would take place and this is basically what this initiative would do," he said. "I just think it's an unnecessary interference in the way law enforcement conducts their day-to-day business."

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 482-3456, ext. 226, or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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