DA: Pot Still Illegal In Denver

Grassroots Marijuana Initiative Passes 53 To 46 Percent

Mile High City residents on Tuesday voted to legalize the possession of a small amount of marijuana, capping a surprisingly nasty campaign that included allegations of misleading voters and exploiting their fears of violent crime.

The change will not affect prosecutions, according to Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrisey.

"The change in DenverÂ’s city ordinance does not change Colorado state law," said Morrissey. "It is still illegal to possess less than an ounce of marijuana anywhere in the state, and that includes Denver."

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, 54 percent, or 56,001 voters, had cast ballots for Measure I-100, while 46 percent, or 48,632 voters, voted against it.

Morrissey estimated that more than 90 percent of the marijuana possession cases filed in Denver were already being filed by using the state statute and he did not expect a large impact from the ballot measure.

Also Tuesday, voters in the ski resort town of Telluride rejected a proposal to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by people 18 or older the town's lowest law enforcement priority. The measure, rejected on a vote of 308-332, was placed on the ballot in August by the Town Council.

"We educated voters about the facts that marijuana is less harmful to the user and society than alcohol," said Mason Tvert, campaign organizer for SAFER, or Safer Alternatives For Enjoyable Recreation. "To prohibit adults from making the rational, safer choice to use marijuana is bad public policy."

Some supporters hoped the Denver proposal would launch a national trend toward legalizing the drug. They say enforcement causes more problems than it cures. They argued that smoking marijuana should carry the same penalties as abusing alcohol.

"What this does say is reconsidering marijuana prohibition is absolutely a mainstream issue now," said Bruce Mirken of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

He said government regulation -- and taxation -- of the drug would halt clandestine growing operations, make it more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana and free space in prisons.

But the Denver proposal seemed to draw at least as much attention for supporters' campaign tactics as it did for the question of legalizing the drug.

Tvert based the campaign on his argument that legalizing marijuana would reduce consumption of alcohol, which he said leads to higher rates of car accidents, domestic and street violence and crime.

The group criticized Mayor John Hickenlooper for opposing the proposal, noting his ownership of a popular brewpub. It also held up recent violent crimes, including the shootings of four people in a span of several hours last weekend, as a reason to legalize marijuana to steer people away from alcohol use.

One sponsored billboard depicted a battered woman and a man standing behind her, presumably her abuser, with the message, "Reduce family and community violence in Denver. Vote Yes on I-100."

The tactics angered local officials and some voters. Many opponents also said it made no sense to prevent prosecution by Denver authorities while marijuana charges are most often filed under state and federal law.

On Tuesday night, Hickenlooper said voters were likely paying more attention to other issues on the ballot, including a state budget fix, a proposal to dramatically change the way Denver schoolteachers are paid and a proposal to increase lodging taxes to promote tourism.

"I think it's in some way a symbol that some attitudes are changing, but I wouldn't read too much into it," he said

Chris Bogren, 21, a political science major at the University of Colorado-Denver, said he came close to voting against the proposal because he was "really disgusted" by the campaign, but said he agreed with underlying arguments.

"It is a lot more sedate of a drug than alcohol or a lot of other things," he said. "It doesn't necessarily lead to violence and the gateway-drug theory is bunk."

Tvert defended his actions, saying the campaign's statements were based on facts gleaned from government studies and crime reports. He also said he doubted that enforcement of federal laws would be strengthened in Denver, and said continued or increased enforcement of state laws in the city would violate voters' will.

Under the measure, residents over 21 years old could possess up to an ounce of marijuana. It would not affect the medical marijuana law voters approved in 2000.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana laws in Colorado and nine other states would not protect licensed users from federal prosecution.

Tvert has said the campaign in Denver and similar, nonbinding initiatives passed by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins are part of a larger plan to move to state regulation and taxation of marijuana.

The Marijuana Policy Project said Denver is the second major U.S. city in less than a year to pass a measure aimed at replacing marijuana prohibition with policies designed to treat marijuana in a manner comparable to alcohol. A similar measure won by a wide margin in Oakland, Calif., in November 2004.

"A few years from now, this vote may well be seen as the proverbial 'tipping point,' the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the U.S.," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Last year, there were more than three-quarters of a million marijuana arrests, an all-time record. That's equivalent to arresting every man, woman, and child in the state of Wyoming plus every man, woman, and child in St. Paul, Minn. The public understands that this simply makes no sense. Regulating marijuana will take money out of the pockets of criminals and free police to go after violent crime, and the voters of Denver took their first step in that direction today."

The city attorney's office has said that even if the measure passes, it wouldn't change anything. Denver police would simply file marijuana possession charges under state law, which carries up to a $100 fine and a mandatory $100 drug-offender surcharge.

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