Looking at the agenda for tonight’s Citizens Police Review Board meeting, I knew that this issue was not going to be addressed in any relevant way. Under “Panel Discussion Marijuana Ordinance Issues” [sic] we see the invited guests: City Prosecutor Stephen Richey, Assistant County Prosecutor Ryan Haigh, and Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton. You can imagine what their opinion boiled down to: They thought the ordinance was being enforced just fine. “We aren’t getting search warrants to pursue misdemeanor marijuana cases.” Well I have two problems with that response.
First of all, our problem with the ordinance isn’t that police shouldn’t be pursuing misdemeanor marijuana charges. It’s that they shouldn’t be going out of their way to chase down ANY marijuana case, from 12 grams to 12 pounds. The ballot language passed by 61% of voters in Columbia in 2004 read: “The limited resources of law enforcement should be directed primarily toward crimes of violence or property loss. The enforcement of laws against marijuana shall be the lowest law enforcement priority.” The current ordinance reads almost exactly the same (Sec. 16-255.2., subsection f; you’ll have to scroll way down): “The limited resources of law enforcement should be directed primarily toward crimes of violence or property loss. The enforcement of laws against marijuana shall be among the lower priorities of law enforcement.” No part of the subsection mentions misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. When the ordinance passed, 61% of Columbia voters were saying they wanted enforcement of ALL marijuana crimes to be THE LOWEST law enforcement priority. Which means no search warrants for pot, no overtime pay for SWAT officers to try to find pot, and no pot-only cases while there are still plenty of unsolved serious crimes in the area.
Second point: The simple fact remains that CPD HAS obtained search warrants and executed SWAT raids on offenders who were later charged with simple misdemeanor possession. Anyone remember the Kinloch Court incident? Misdemeanor possession. Of course, they were going for more pot than what they found, but the fact that faulty intelligence can and does happen means maybe we should rethink pursuing marijuana cases with these violent tactics.
Well, after the two prosecutors and Chief Burton had their say, Dan Viets requested that the board continue discussion on the lower priority ordinance at their next monthly meeting when more students are in town to weigh in with their opinions. This was quickly shot down, and the board moved on. The discussion of how to better enforce the lowest priority ordinance was over without even having happened.
At the end of the CPRB meetings they allow time for general public comment. I stood and expressed my disappointment that the board for not even allowing a variety of opinions to be heard. “If you think that you can get a full range of opinions by inviting two prosecutors and the Police Chief here tonight, then you have no understanding of this issue,” I told them. I urged that they take the issue up again in the future when a fair discussion might be had. After I had spoken, Chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez seemed to understand my point and realize they had not looked at the picture quite as fully. In a compromise, she moved to table time at next month’s meeting to discuss whether it is wise police policy to serve search warrants in connection with non-violent crimes.
Here’s where you all come in. The next CPRB meeting is on February 9 at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall. Come and let the Citizens Police Review Board know your opinion: Should police be serving search warrants, which are inherently violent, to investigate crimes where no violence was committed and no property was damaged or stolen? If you’re interested in speaking to the Board please drop me an email at email@example.com by February 1 so I can guarantee you some time to address the board at that meeting. I hope to see many students and citizens there!