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West Hollywood Wants To Legalize Pot Use

Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2006

by Ashraf Khalil and Arin Gencer, Times Staff Writers

First West Hollywood officials required that pet owners be known as "pet guardians." Then they banned cat declawing and even considered outlawing pet cosmetic surgery.

On Monday, the Westside town famous for its novelmunicipal lawmaking took a stab at legalizing the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana.

But achieving that goal might prove difficult.

The City Council approved a resolution that urges the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to make marijuana-related offenses a "low priority" that deputies should largely ignore.

In doing so, it became the first city in Southern California to request that its law enforcement agency look the other way at recreational pot use and target only the sale of marijuana.

The vote was taken despite concerns from some residents and top aides of Sheriff Lee Baca, who had urged the council to delay the vote.

Councilman John Duran proposed the resolution, saying that deputies have more important things to worry about than arresting people with small amounts of pot. Instead, he said, deputies could focus on more destructive drugs like crystal methamphetamine.

"We've seen that marijuana use is certainly no more dangerous and destructive than alcohol use," Duran said. "The whole 'reefer madness' hysteria has worn thin."

Duran said he knew that the resolution would put Baca in an "awkward position," but said it was important for the city to take a stand.

"I don't think we were ever going to get the sheriff to support it," he said.

San Francisco and Oakland have passed similar rules. But unlike those cities, West Hollywood lacks its own police force. Instead it contracts with the county sheriff for police services.

Sheriff's Department officials said they were worried about the message being sent if law enforcement was asked to selectively enforce state law.

"As sworn personnel they have certain obligations to uphold," said Jeff Prang, a West Hollywood councilman who also is a special aide to Baca.

Prang abstained on Monday's vote. The resolution passed 4 to 0.

Baca tried to be conciliatory Monday, saying he believes that city leaders are being pressed by pot legalization forces in the region to take a stand on the issue.

"We certainly in my office understand what pressure is," Baca said. "My belief is that the city needs to have its voice heard on the matter, and the question will remain to what extent is this resolution binding…. We will look at it for all of our pluses and minuses and advise the City Council as to our position."

The city of 35,000 has no power to compel the department to comply with the resolution.

Theoretically, if the department refuses, the city could end its $10-million law enforcement contract with the sheriff and use another area police department. But that probably would not occur.

"That would put us in a very awkward situation," Duran said.

How much would the resolution change West Hollywood? The Sheriff's Department already places a low priority on simple possession and personal consumption of pot.

Deputy Richard Pena, who works out of the West Hollywood station, said he and his fellow officers use their own judgment in small-time pot cases. For example, he said, if he came across someone smoking a joint in public, he would check the person's ID and prior criminal record and probably issue a warning.

"It depends on the circumstances and the amount," Pena said. "If you're caught with a van load of huge bundles … that would be hard to argue it's for personal consumption."

But actually putting this unspoken rule of thumb on paper creates a unique and possibly uncomfortable situation for the department.

"You don't usually have contracting cities adopting resolutions saying, 'This is what we want you to enforce and this is what we don't want you to enforce,' " Prang said.

The resolution does exactly that. It states that "law enforcement efforts should focus on more serious issues and crimes." It says that deputies should ignore residents with "small amounts" of the drug, but it provides no specific limit for possession.

Sean Stogel, a manager at Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood, said he applauded the open-mindedness of city leaders but questioned how effective legalizing small amounts of marijuana would be.

"It's not like they're actually going out right now and pursuing these people," he said.

Others in West Hollywood are also unsure about the idea. Shallom Berkman, co-founder of the trendy Urth Caffe on Melrose Avenue, said he had seen people lose their jobs because of drug problems that began with marijuana and got much worse.

"I don't know, if it's legal or illegal, does it help us as a society deal with the issue?" he said.

Scott Imler, a leading medical marijuana advocate, warned the council at its meeting Monday evening that its action would encourage recreational pot use, which he opposes. He described the action as the "Amsterdamization of West Hollywood."

But West Hollywood's move is less radical than one that voters in Denver approved last year.

About 54% of voters supported a ballot measure that legalized possession of less than an ounce of pot by people 21 and over.

And it is possible that voters in West Hollywood might end up deciding the issue.

A group called the West Hollywood Civil Liberties Alliance had launched a campaign to put legalization on the ballot. Duran said the city compromised and agreed to sponsor its own resolution instead.

"Any time you run a special election, it could cost a small city like West Hollywood around $80,000," Duran said. What's more, if put on the spot, the Sheriff's Department probably would oppose the initiative, Duran said.

"It would have been divisive and it would have been costly," he said.

Veteran West Hollywood attorney Bruce Margolin, who has represented hundreds of clients facing marijuana and other criminal charges, including Timothy Leary, hopes that the council's action is just the beginning.

"This is just another expression of the public saying, 'Stop putting people in jail for such benign conduct as the use of marijuana … because it doesn't really affect society in a way that is of great concern,' " he said.

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