Although Measure P, which was approved by 65% of the city's voters last November, does not decriminalize marijuana, it will further reduce the already infrequent arrests of adults possessing small amounts of marijuana.
The law is similar to those passed in at least 10 other cities in the U.S., including Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.
After Measure P passed, the city of Santa Barbara sued one of its chief proponents, local activist Heather Poet, claiming that the measure she backed was unconstitutional. But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Anderle threw out the city's suit, ruling that Poet had done nothing wrong and that the measure was "a proper legislative enactment."
Santa Barbara City Atty. Stephen Wiley said he was uncertain whether the City Council would appeal the ruling. Some city officials and the Santa Barbara Police Department opposed Measure P, saying it was a burden on officers and created a needless layer of city bureaucracy.
The city's lawsuit was the first substantive legal challenge to such laws, according to Adam Wolf, an ACLU attorney who represented Poet.
"It's a resounding victory for free speech and the democratic process," Wolf said. "It affirms the fact that communities across America can tell their local police departments that they should be focusing on serious crime, not on low-level drug offenses."
The judge rejected the city's claim that state and federal drug laws made the local measure invalid. "Police officers can still arrest those who violate drug possession laws in their presence," Anderle wrote in his ruling. "The voters have simply instructed them that they have higher priority work to do."
After Poet was sued, she countersued, citing a state law intended to quash litigation known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. The law is intended to stop large organizations from silencing critics by filing lawsuits of questionable merit.
Poet was within her rights, the judge wrote in his ruling.
"All that the city has alleged and all it appears that defendant has done is engage in the initiative process," Anderle wrote.