By Mason Tvert
Voters in Denver have made it increasingly clear they do not want their city punishing adults for using marijuana.
A majority voted to remove all penalties for private possession under city ordinances in 2005, and an even larger majority voted in favor of doing so at the state level in 2006. Most recently, in 2007, 57 percent of voters approved a new city ordinance directing police and prosecutors to make adult possession their absolute lowest priority.
Although support for reform is on the rise in the Mile High City, the trend in the annual number of citations being issued is moving in the opposite direction.
According to statistics recently unearthed by Sensible Colorado, a statewide marijuana policy reform organization, about 1,600 adults were cited for misdemeanor possession in 2007, an increase of about 18 percent from 2006, 36 percent from 2005, and a whopping 50 percent from 2004. Racial disparities are also evident, as blacks make up just about 10 percent of Denver's population yet account for 32 percent of citations.
Clearly, Denver city officials have a marijuana problem. It appears they are addicted to punishing people for pot when in fact they have every right to stop doing so at any time.
Whereas in Denver they have been unwilling to kick their habit without putting up a fight, other cities have managed to go cold turkey and follow the will of the voters. In Missoula, Montana, where a similar “lowest priority” measure was adopted in 2006, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg issued a formal policy last fall directing city police to stop issuing simple possession citations and requiring prosecutors to make such cases their absolute lowest priority. No formal policy has been necessary in Seattle, where marijuana possession cases have naturally been on the decline and advocates and city officials agree their “lowest priority” ordinance (approved in 2003) has been a success.
In an August 2007 letter to the Denver City Council, Seattle councilmen Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen referred to their city’s ordinance as “safe, effective, and inexpensive.” They also noted that, “In the three years since [the measure] was adopted, Seattle has experienced a significant decline in the number of marijuana arrests and prosecutions undertaken.”
In fact, Seattle handled just 125 marijuana possession cases in 2006, compared to approximately 1,400 in Denver, despite it having a smaller population.
Fortunately for Denver citizens, however, there is an intervention – and a very public discussion – underway.
As a result of the successful initiative in 2007, Mayor John Hickenlooper appointed a Marijuana Policy Review Panel, which is officially charged with implementing the “lowest priority” ordinance to the greatest extent possible. The panel includes representatives of the police department and city attorney’s office, two marijuana policy reform advocates, three defense attorneys, a drug and alcohol abuse prevention counselor, and a domestic violence prevention advocate. The Denver District Attorney’s office was also supposed to be represented, but it refused to participate – a perfect example of the stubbornness and ignorance that lies at the heart of marijuana prohibition.
The panel just met for the second time this past week, but already things are looking promising. A resolution was introduced that encourages the Denver City Attorney’s Office to adopt a formal policy (like the one in Missoula) swearing off prosecution in cases of simple adult possession. The proposal will go up for a vote at the next panel meeting, which will likely be held early this summer.
Clearly change is not going to come easy in the Mile High City. But that is what the people want and have voted for three times: a change in how the city does business when it comes to adult marijuana use. Moreover, as the city continues to act irrationally and provide no good reason for dragging its feet, support for reform continues to grow. Many citizens who did not necessarily care about marijuana are now upset by the city’s arrogance and lack of respect for the voters, and even more continue to hear positive stories about the issue in the news.
A movement is underway, and it is only a matter of time before changes in Denver’s marijuana policy become a reality.
Mason Tvert is the executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER). Find out more and contact SAFER at: www.saferchoice.org