Pubdate: Sun, 29 Oct 2006
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2006 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Lianne Hart, Los Angeles Times
Cited: Eureka Springs "Low Priority" Marijuana Initiative
Cited: Arkansas NORML
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Having an Ounce or Less Would Be Akin to a Traffic Violation

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. Here in the heart of the Bible Belt, where local 
laws often restrict the sale of liquor, grassroots campaigns to 
decriminalize marijuana have gone nowhere.

But to the surprise of enthusiasts across the state, residents in the 
small tourist town of Eureka Springs will vote Nov. 7 on whether to 
make misdemeanor marijuana arrests the city's lowest law-enforcement priority.

Local leaders of the National Organization for the Reform of 
Marijuana Laws, the group that collected the signatures needed to get 
the initiative on the ballot, hardly can believe their day has come.

Volunteers had circulated petitions for years, but "it's been like 
talking to a brick wall," said Glen Schwarz, NORML's Little Rock 
director. "The jails in Arkansas are full of pot smokers caught by 
people who think they've arrested Al Capone. ... Maybe this will 
crack open the door."

The Eureka Springs initiative seeks to make possession of an ounce or 
less of marijuana akin to a minor traffic violation, punishable by 
community service or drug counseling. First-time offenders caught 
with an ounce or less of marijuana in Arkansas can get as much as one 
year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.

But no one is lighting up in celebration yet at least not in public. 
Many locals are unhappy about the initiative while Arkansas is 
battling a major methamphetamine problem. And Eureka Springs police 
say the vote won't matter because state laws governing marijuana 
possession trump local ordinances.

"A lot of people here don't see anything wrong with marijuana, but 
it's against the law to possess it in Arkansas. Until they change the 
state law, we're going to uphold it," Police Sgt. Shelley Summers said,

Keith Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970, said that although police 
can "ignore the will of the voters, I'm not sure they will want to."

If the initiative passes, he said, "a majority of residents will be 
saying that law-enforcement resources should be spent on more serious 
crime. If the mayor and other city leaders don't understand that, the 
town can vote in people who do."

Ryan Denham, a volunteer who is organizing the Eureka Springs 
campaign, said he would think about that later. Right now, he is 
focusing on the election, getting together mailers that will be sent 
to every voter in the town.

"We barely have legal alcohol in Arkansas. But if any place here has 
a shot, it's Eureka," he said.

In a remote hollow in the northwest Arkansas hills, Eureka Springs 
has been called the most eccentric town in the state, the largest 
open-air asylum in the country, a place where misfits fit.

The population of 2,278 is a mix of conservative Christians and aging 
hippies who, as they tell it, wandered into the area around 1973 and 
never left.

A seven-story statue of Jesus Christ overlooks the quaint Victorian 
village where senior citizens on bus tours shop for crafts and 
T-shirts - and where gays and lesbians celebrating one of the town's 
many "diversity weekends" walk arm in arm on the narrow, winding streets.

Because the town is a hodgepodge of people and opinions, no one 
really knows how the vote will turn out. There are plenty of people 
like Doug Green, 47, who shrugged and said: "Pot isn't a big deal 
here. It just isn't. I don't think that law will change anything or 
make people smoke more. It's what goes on here all the time anyway."

Bill Hunter pulled a copy of Medicinal Plants and Herbs from the cab 
of his pickup truck, and thumbed through the pages until he found a 
section on the beneficial properties of cannabis.

"Here, this is it," he said, placing a stubby finger on the passage. 
"People should read this. It's all right here. ... There's a big meth 
problem in Arkansas. That's what the police should be spending their 
time and money on, not marijuana.

But, said Jim Evans, methamphetamine abuse is exactly why drug laws 
should not be relaxed.

"I don't see how it can do anything but hurt our chances of ever 
getting the drug problem under control," he said of the initiative. 
"This seems to be going backward, not forward. When I heard about 
this initiative, I just shook my head and said 'Oh, why us?'"

Grocery-store butcher Ronnie Henderson, 42, said he knew why.

"There's a lot of hippies in this town," he said, tending to a 
brisket-filled barbecue pit in the store parking lot. "They got it on 
the ballot, and all of the sudden we're voting on whether to make it 
easier on people who use drugs. To me that's like saying you're not 
going to arrest people for drunk driving.

"It's the law, and you don't just change it like that. If it passes, 
this town won't be a family tourist place anymore." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake