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In Denver, A Ballot Fight Over Marijuana Arrests

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
DENVER -- In 2005, voters here approved a measure making it legal for an adult to possess an ounce or less of marijuana. But arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession have risen since then.

Now, voters are to decide on a ballot measure that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana the lowest enforcement priority for the police.

"People didn't want anyone arrested," said Mason Tvert, executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, a pro-marijuana group that sponsored the 2005 measure and is sponsoring the latest one. "That's what they voted on."

Proponents of the measure, which is similar to regulations in Seattle and Missoula County, Mont., contend that the police have more pressing matters to attend to and that the use of marijuana by adults is less harmful than alcohol.

But, it is unclear how the authorities will react if the measure passes. The 2005 measure garnered 54 percent approval. But city officials have ignored it, choosing instead to keep enforcing superseding state laws, which stipulate that a marijuana offense of an ounce or less, considered a Class 2 petty offense in Colorado, is punishable by a $100 fine. Misdemeanor marijuana arrests for people over 21 have risen to 1,347 last year, from 1,168 in 2005.

Sgt. Ernie Martinez of the Denver Police Department said that the police do not single out marijuana smokers and that such arrests often occur when officers respond to other crimes.

Sergeant Martinez, the president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, said even if the latest ballot measure passes, he cannot envision ordering his officers to stop arresting people for marijuana.

"They essentially want to promote self-indulgence of marijuana use at the risk of the public," he said of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation.

Mayor John Hickenlooper is against the initiative and says that marijuana enforcement is already a low priority for the police.

"It is not something the police specifically target for enforcement, or to which they deploy a significant amount of resources," said Sue Cobb, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hickenlooper.

Local officials elsewhere have abided by similar ballot measures. Officials in Missoula County have heeded a 2006 decision by voters to make adult marijuana possession of any amount a low priority for the police. But the county commission, believing that such a sweeping measure was not actually the voters' true intention, narrowed the scope of the law so to make only possession of small amounts of marijuana a low enforcement priority.

In Seattle, misdemeanor marijuana citations have dropped off since voters approved a similar measure in 2003. In August, two Seattle city council members sent a letter to Denver officials praising the Seattle initiative, calling it a sensible drug policy.

But even in that city, where an oversight panel will issue a report on the effects of the law, opinions are sharply divided.

The Seattle city attorney, Thomas Carr, said the data on the ordinance was inconclusive and noted that arrests have dropped citywide, not just those for marijuana. He said voters in Denver should judge the measure for themselves rather than holding Seattle up as a model.

"What I think bothers the police here is the message that marijuana smoking is O.K.," he said. "And that bothers me as well."

Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Website: The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia
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