Officials say most marijuana arrests are made under a state law, not an existing ordinance, so cops will arrest users just as they did before Initiative 100 was approved.
As Denver officials react to Tuesday's vote to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, they can look to two West Coast cities where similar initiatives won approval.
Voters in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle told police to make possession of small amounts of marijuana the lowest priority, but each city responded differently.
In Seattle, the number of people prosecuted for pot possession has plummeted since voters approved an initiative in September 2003.
In 2003, Seattle prosecuted 178 people for possession of marijuana; in 2004, the prosecutions plunged to 59.
"I think someone, somewhere along the chain of command got the message ( in Seattle )," said Andy Ko, director of the drug policy referendum project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
One outspoken opponent of the pro-marijuana initiative in Seattle, City Attorney Tom Carr, said his fears that marijuana usage would spike dramatically haven't materialized.
"We've had some silliness," he said. "One man was arrested for trying to sell brownies to a police officer, and someone wanted to host a smoke-in in a park, but for the most part, I haven't seen a drastic increase."
Denver officials say the outcome will be more like that in Oakland, where police are ignoring a pro-marijuana measure voters approved last year. Oakland police continue to arrest people who use marijuana, say city officials and pro-marijuana proponents there. Opposition to the new law there delayed creation of a city panel that voters wanted to oversee changes in enforcement.
Denver officials say the vast majority of drug prosecutions in Denver already are brought under state law, so police will continue to make arrests as usual before Initiative 100 was approved Tuesday.
The Denver city attorney's office prosecuted 1,565 people last year under state law, which calls for a fine of up to $100. The city prosecuted 36 adults last year for marijuana possession under a separate city ordinance prohibiting marijuana use. That ordinance has a maximum penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, though milder penalties are the norm, said Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, meanwhile, said Tuesday's vote to legalize marijuana possession was a sign of the priorities of an increasingly young, educated population.
"It is indicative of the changing attitudes," Hickenlooper said, noting that because of its population, Denver may increasingly be on the "vanguard" of such issues.
The group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER, which pushed the Denver vote, says city officials will thwart the will of about 56,000 voters if they continue prosecutions. The initiative makes it legal for anyone 21 or older to possess 1 ounce or less of marijuana in Denver, though it made no changes to a section of city ordinance that continues to outlaw public smoking of pot.
"It's not whether they can do it, it's whether they will do it," said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER. "Right now, there are city officials denying the will of voters who put them in office, and I think that's disturbing."
He stressed that the City Council had no problem trumping state law in April 2004 when it passed a law banning pit bulls. State law prohibits cities from regulating dangerous dogs in a breed-specific way.
Broadwell said court precedents allow cities to be more restrictive than state law but not less restrictive.