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Local, state groups vie over city pot initiatives

Proposals would make enforcing laws a low priority

Two groups who favor relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws are battling over similar initiatives they want to put before Spokane voters.

Sensible Spokane and Sensible Washington, which are separate organizations, have each filed initiatives with the city of Spokane’s clerk’s office declaring intentions to collect signatures so voters could declare that marijuana laws aimed at adults are the city’s “lowest law enforcement priority.”

Seattle voters in 2003 approved the state’s first such initiative. Tacoma voters overwhelmingly approved a similar measure last year.

Both proposals in Spokane would also restrict the ability of city police officers to work with federal agencies when they enforce marijuana laws.

Sensible Spokane’s proposal is more detailed and would not restrict the enforcement of marijuana violations when they occur on public property or for driving under the influence of the drug. It also would create a committee that would recommend regulations related to marijuana.

Ian Moody, coordinator of Sensible Spokane, has submitted similar initiatives on marijuana that never made it to the ballot.

“It’s time to put our money where our mouth is,” he said.

He said the submission by Seattle-based Sensible Washington of a competing initiative shows “a lack of respect” for local activists.

“I definitely feel like there’s going to be some confusion,” Moody said. But he said that Sensible Spokane will “do a better job getting our effort out to the public.”

Douglas Hiatt, chairman of Sensible Washington, said his group was under the impression that Sensible Spokane would drop its effort and endorse Sensible Washington’s.

He questions if Moody has the kind of support needed to collect signatures.

“A lot of it I think is just poorly drafted,” he said.

Sensible Washington’s proposal is further-reaching, making no distinction between public and private marijuana use, and it does not call for an advisory committee.

Moody argues that his proposal is more in line with the sensibilities of Spokane voters and that the spat between the two groups mirrors the debate statewide among marijuana reform advocates. Sensible Washington has criticized proposed Initiative 502, which would legalize marijuana use among those 21 and older, but tax it, maintain certain restrictions and create thresholds for driving under the influence related to marijuana use. Moody, who also is running for Congress and working to overturn a city ordinance that changed the initiative process, favors I-502.

Each group doubts the ability of the other to gather enough signatures.  To make the November 2012 ballot in Spokane, more than 9,000 signatures of registered voters are needed. The threshold to make the November 2013 is only about 3,000. Both groups say they are working to place similar initiatives on the ballot in other cities. Sensible Spokane, for instance, hopes to make the Cheney ballot this November.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said city officials haven’t conducted a thorough legal evaluation of the proposals but do have concerns.

“Misdemeanor marijuana possession is already a low priority, and typically someone is only charged with that offense in conjunction with other charges,” she said.

But Frank Cikutovich, a Spokane attorney who has represented many defendants accused of marijuana-related offenses, says he still gets clients in Spokane who face only a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

He said he would support a law making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Cikutovich said. “It’s basically the citizens telling the elected officials quit wasting our resources on stuff like this.”

Feist said the city is most concerned about restrictions on working with federal agencies.

“As a practical matter, we are working every day with our federal law enforcement partners, and that cooperation does improve public safety for our community,” Feist said.