When British police chief Brian Paddick introduced a 'softly, softly' approach to nabbing people smoking weed in Lambeth, south London, illiberal commentators called for him to be sacked. Paddick, the UK's most senior 'out' gay cop, was hounded out of his job as the borough's police commander as a result. Now lawmakers in a trendy US city have taken the first step towards doing the same as Paddick.
West Hollywood officials voted this week to legalising 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.