Feature: Denver Says Legalize Pot -- Officials Vow to Thwart Will of Voters 11/4/05

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After a tough and surprisingly bitter campaign, voters in Denver Tuesday approved a ballot measure legalizing the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by persons 21 or older, but city and state officials have vowed to ignore the vote and continue with business as usual in Colorado's largest city. The measure passed by a margin of 54% to 46%.

Mason Tvert on Denver's Fox station
Organized by the home-grown group SAFER, or Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation, which had earlier successfully engineered votes at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University urging college authorities to treat marijuana offenses like alcohol offenses, the Denver initiative, S-100 marks the first time residents of a major US city have voted to legalize marijuana possession. Seattle, Oakland, and a handful of college towns across the country have approved "lowest law enforcement priority" initiatives on marijuana, but none of those initiatives called for the outright legalization of small amounts of marijuana.

A "lowest priority" initiative on the ballot in the southwestern Colorado ski resort town of Telluride was narrowly defeated Tuesday, failing by a margin of 308 votes to 332. The organizers of that effort, Sensible Colorado, remain undaunted, however, and are now eyeing plans for a statewide effort.

"The vote in Denver is a huge step toward a more sane marijuana policy in this country," said SAFER head Mason Tvert. "We knew that people here supported the idea that an adult should not be prohibited from making a rational choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol," he told DRCNet. SAFER has made a comparison of the relative harms and dangers of alcohol and marijuana the key component in its successful campaigns.

"The results in Denver show that marijuana reform is a mainstream issue. Voters are demonstrating they understand that prohibition doesn't make a lot of sense and needs to be rethought," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is preparing for a statewide effort in Nevada next year. "When something like this happens in Seattle or Oakland, people might dismiss it as just a bunch of fringe lefties, but Denver is the heartland. This is as mainstream as it gets."

Under current Colorado law, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is treated as an infraction, with offenders subject to fines but not jail time -- up to $100, plus another $100 mandatory fee for being arrested on drug charges. And it's not as if the law is not enforced. Denver police cited more than 6,800 people for marijuana infractions since 2002. Under the newly passed city ordinance, police would no longer be able to cite people for simple possession, but Denver and state officials have vowed to ignore the ordinance and continue to cite people under state law.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers told local media Tuesday that Denver police will continue to cite marijuana offenders under the state law and he criticized the initiative for aiming at the municipal level. "I have found these efforts to be unconstructive," he said. "I understand the debate about legalization and whether our drug laws are constructive. But I wish we would have a full-out debate instead of these peripheral issues that accomplish just about nothing."

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey was also determined to ignore the vote. "It's still illegal in the city of Denver, because Denver's in Colorado," he said.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, owner of the Wynkoop Brewery and brew pub, an opponent of the measure, also downplayed its significance, suggesting he, too, would advise police to ignore the vote. "It's a generational thing," he said of the vote. "People's attitudes toward marijuana; they're clearly changing," he said. "If that election had been 20 years ago, it would have been a very different outcome. The bottom line is, it doesn't change state law. I think it's more symbolic than anything else."

While foes of the measure are now arguing that the initiative doesn't change anything, they were singing a different tune before the election. Denver would become the Amsterdam of the Rockies, they warned. "Next thing you know, we'll have drug dealers setting up in City Park," warned city councilman Charlie Brown, who was so opposed to the measure that he took to ripping down signs touting it.

"People will flock to Denver to use marijuana," Jeffrey Sweetin, head of the Rocky Mountain Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration told the Associated Press last week. Inadvertently making an argument for complete legalization of the weed, Sweetin argued that people would still have to buy the drug from illicit sources and they "don't realize all that money goes to organized crime."

SAFER is now pondering how to turn the screws on public officials who refuse to heed the will of the voters. The DEA may be out of SAFER's immediate reach, but local officials are not. "They say their legitimacy comes from being elected by the people, but now they're not going to recognize this vote," said Tvert. "Why are they hiding behind state law? The fact is, this city has the right to handle marijuana cases under the municipal law, and it is a matter of prosecutorial discretion to do so," he said. "Ultimately, if our elected officials fail us, we may have to find new ones," he said.

Another possible tactic is to jam the court system with marijuana cases. "Anyone who is arrested for marijuana possession in Denver on state charges could demand a trial," he pointed out.

"This is a situation where local activists are going to have to ride herd on their local government," said the Marijuana Policy Project's Mirken. "A local ordinance isn't going to solve the problem of marijuana prohibition, but we do live -- at least in theory -- in a democratic society where the police are our servants, not our masters. When the voters of a city make clear their desires, the police and elected officials ought to listen rather than resist. But this won't happen automatically. There is a deep-seated hostility in some corners of law enforcement, and their feet are going to have to be held to the fire."

The campaign itself got pretty hostile. As noted above, Councilman Brown's opposition was so ardent he resorted to tearing down campaign signs. He also complained loudly -- along with some domestic violence activists -- about a SAFER billboard designed by Change the Climate that argued that voting for S-100 would reduce domestic violence. That billboard was modified before finally going up. Brown and others also objected to other SAFER campaign materials that said merely that S-100 would make the city safer without mentioning marijuana. "This isn't about domestic violence. This isn't about alcohol," he complained to the Rocky Mountain News last week. "This is about marijuana.

But Tvert makes no bones about the thrust of the campaign: Marijuana is safer than alcohol. "The ads were controversial, but they worked to our benefit," he said. "We got a bunch of flak for saying people smoking pot were less likely to beat their wives than people drinking alcohol, but that's just good science. We had four people shot and killed in alcohol-related incidents in Denver last weekend alone. People get it."

The campaign also went after Mayor Hickenlooper, accusing him of hypocrisy and even of being a drug dealer. "This is a mayor who owns breweries across the country and is selling a more deadly product than marijuana. Yes, we charge him with hypocrisy," said Tvert.

But now that the election is over, it could be time to mend fences. "We want to see this implemented in Denver," said Tvert.

In getting local officials to recognize their victory, Tvert and his allies -- and the voters of Denver -- have the sort of problems Sensible Colorado only wishes it had. While the party-happy resort town of Telluride may have seemed a natural for a "lowest priority" initiative, Sensible Colorado couldn't make it happen this time, losing in a squeaker by only 24 votes.

Question 200 would have directed the Telluride Town Marshal's office to make marijuana citations the lowest law enforcement priority, but according to local officials and numerous letter writers to the local newspaper, that was already pretty much the case. Some opponents also cited Sensible Colorado's outsider status in the small, remote ski destination. The group is based in Denver.

A surprise opponent of the Telluride ordinance was county Sheriff Bill Masters, who has called for ending drug prohibition. This wasn't the way to do it, he told DRCNet. "I'm all for changing the law and making it legal, but this is a dumb ordinance," he said. "I think the idea of directing the executive branch to ignore the law is a mistake. We need to change the law, not just wink at it. The way they did it in Denver makes a lot more sense. I can see why that passed."

Masters also criticized Sensible Colorado for some of its campaign tactics. "This is a small community, and these guys came in from out of town and started putting up signs saying 'Stop Crime, Vote for 200,' and everyone thought that was just ridiculous," he said. "They picked the wrong town and went about it the wrong way."

"It's the duty of citizens to make the laws and tell police what to do," retorted Sensible Colorado's Brian Vincent. "In a home rule municipality like Telluride, they have the power to set a priority system." He also challenged suggestions the initiative was an "outsider" effort. "I think this was a fairly home-grown initiative," Vincent said. "We had the support of the county coroner, we had the support of a county commissioner, we had more than 160 locals sign the petition to put this on the ballot."

But possible tactical errors aside, Sensible Colorado faced a more fundamental problem in Telluride, said Masters. In a town where only 17 marijuana citations were issued last year, most people were content with local police on the issue. "The Telluride police have a reasonable, if unwritten, policy on marijuana. Almost every one of the citations they issued were for people arrested for something else. Many people felt the local police were pretty reasonable and didn't need that direction."

Despite the defeat, Vincent was upbeat. "Look, we lost by 24 votes, that's a pretty narrow margin of defeat, and we feel pretty good about our effort. We feel good about what happened in Denver, too. That's a historic victory. It's certainly a big day for marijuana reform in Colorado."

Vincent and Sensible Colorado are aiming for more big days and historic victories. "We are looking at a statewide initiative either next year or 2008. We are going to build off this momentum. We can't be called a fringe movement anymore." It may not be a "tax and regulate" initiative, though. "People don't like the word 'tax' too much in Colorado," Vincent chuckled. "Maybe we'll talk about controlled regulation. Or come to think of it, the state's largest city just voted to remove all criminal penalties, didn't they? We're real excited about Colorado."

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Issue #410 -- 11/4/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed


Feature: Denver Says Legalize Pot -- Officials Vow to Thwart Will of Voters | Feature: Supreme Court Hears Ayahuasca Religious Use Case -- Justices Skeptical of Government Arguments | Feature: New Mexico's Comprehensive Methamphetamine Recommendations Approach "Four Pillars" Scope | DRCNet Book Review: "The Great Drug War: And Rational Proposals to Turn the Tide," (2nd edition), by Arnold Trebach (Unlimited Publishing, 401 pp, $19.99 pb.) | Event: Celebrity Perry Fund Reception in Los Angeles, Monday, November 7 -- You're Invited | Marijuana: In Latest Gallup Poll, 36 Percent Say Legalize It -- Half in the West Are Ready | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cop Stories | Sentencing: Number in Jail or Prison, on Probation or Parole Nears 7 Million, 1.8 Million of Them Drug Offenders | Supreme Court: Nominee Has Mixed But Mostly Bad Record on Drug-Related Issues | Latin America: Bolivian Elections Rescheduled | Australia: Amid Wave of Reefer Madness, Government Calls for Tougher Marijuana Laws | Web Scan: Hartford City Drug Conference, Norm Stamper | Weekly: This Week in History | Job Opportunity: Executive Assistant, Marijuana Policy Project | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar |

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