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The Nation

Denver Is First City to Legalize Small Amount of Pot

Voters erase all penalties for adults possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. State laws banning it still apply.

November 03, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Bring on the jokes about the Mile High City.

Denver on Tuesday became the first city in the nation to wipe out all criminal and civil penalties for adults caught possessing a small amount of marijuana.

About 54% of voters supported a ballot measure legalizing possession of less than an ounce of pot by individuals 21 and over.

The ordinance is more radical than pro-marijuana measures approved over the years in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and half a dozen college towns across the country. Most of those initiatives decriminalized marijuana for medical use, or replaced criminal penalties with small fines or directed police to make enforcement of marijuana laws a low priority.

Denver, by contrast, erased adult possession as an offense entirely.

State laws banning pot still apply in Denver, however. Police for years have cited most offenders under state law rather than city ordinance, as a matter of convenience.

The state law is pre-printed on the front of tickets, so just by checking a box an officer can issue a fine for as much as $200. To use the previous city ordinance -- which carried the threat of as much as a year in jail if convicted -- an officer would have to write out the relevant code by hand.

"Citing under state law has been a tradition here for years.... We intend to keep doing what we've been doing," said David W. Broadwell, an assistant city attorney.

Although the Denver vote may have no practical effect, advocates of relaxed drug laws said it was symbolic. In large part, that's because of the tactics activists used to promote the measure. The marijuana liberalization group SAFER ran a provocative -- critics said deceitful -- campaign to cast the measure as vital to public safety.

On yard signs and billboards, online and in voter forums, campaign director Mason Tvert, 23, tried to persuade voters that marijuana was a safer alternative to alcohol. He argued that street crime and domestic violence would drop if residents were legally allowed to smoke pot rather than down a six-pack of beer. College campuses too would be safer, he said, if joints replaced kegs at parties.

In one stunt last month, Tvert dragged a mock corpse in a body bag to City Hall and surrounded it with jugs from Wynkoop Brewery -- which is owned by Denver's mayor, John W. Hickenlooper. He then piled bags of Doritos in a heap nearby. His point: Alcohol abuse can kill you. Marijuana gives you the munchies.

City officials reacted angrily to such tactics, warning that pot was a "gateway" to more dangerous drugs. They accused Tvert of confusing the public by using campaign signs that read "Make Denver SAFER." (The group's acronym stands for Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation.) Tvert insisted people understood his message.

A more traditional campaign in Telluride, Colo., failed as voters rejected an effort to make pot the town's lowest law enforcement priority.

Activists expect Tvert's approach to be taken up around the country -- particularly in Nevada, where pro-marijuana forces are preparing a statewide initiative to tax and regulate pot much like beer or cigarettes.

Oakland passed a similar measure last fall, but it was tabled because it conflicted with state and federal law.

"Success breeds success," said Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst with the pro-marijuana group NORML. "I think you'll see this campaign used as a model."

Even Hickenlooper, who opposed the measure, said he thought the vote might prove a bellwether.

"Peoples' attitudes [about marijuana] are changing," the mayor said. "We have one of the youngest populations of any city in the nation, so it makes sense that attitudes here might be changing faster."

Another issue on Tuesday's ballot also had national significance: The statewide vote to suspend the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which was considered the strictest cap on government spending in the country.

Voters agreed 52% to 48% to lift the cap and to relinquish their claim to an estimated $3.7 billion in tax refunds. The vote frees Colorado to spend millions more on higher education, healthcare and transportation.

But it infuriates fiscal conservatives who are pushing spending caps similar to Colorado's in several states, including California, Nevada and Arizona. The California measure is on next week's ballot as Proposition 76; polls show it losing by a substantial margin.

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