Denver officials say prohibition still law
By Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News
November 4, 2005

Denver voters may have legalized adult marijuana possession Tuesday, but the political fuming, fighting and "Mile High" fun-poking is just firing up.

Passage of Initiative 100 by 53 percent of voters ostensibly changed city law to legalize private adult possession of 1 ounce or less of pot.

But city law enforcement and political leaders say the vote was merely symbolic, because state law trumps local ordinances. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and police officials warn that pot possession will continue to be prosecuted under state law as a petty offense punishable by a maximum $100 fine.

Now, Denver officials are feeling heat and heckling, both from residents outraged that leaders are ignoring the will of the voters and citizens worried the city is going to pot.

Jay Leno unleashed his first Mile High zinger on Wednesday's Tonight Show.

"Fifty-three percent of the people approve of having marijuana in Denver, how about that?" Leno said. "How does that make Bush feel? He's 14 percent behind pot now."

Then there are headlines from Moscow to London toasting Denver as the new U.S. pot capital.

"For the national, and, indeed, the international media, this initiative is a hell of a lot more important than (Referendums) C and D. It's unbelievable," said City Councilman Charlie Brown, an outspoken foe of the marijuana measure, who'd just completed his umpteenth debate with pro-pot point man Mason Tvert, on the MSNBC cable network Thursday.

Brown had already taped a Madison, Wis., talk-radio show and is booked for a national FOX News TV show and a Florida talk-radio fest this weekend.

The councilman slams Tvert for using "Make Denver SAFER" campaign signs and billboards calling for reduced domestic violence. He said voters were flim-flammed into thinking I-100 was about highly publicized concerns about Denver's rising crime and the need for more police.

Tvert counters that Brown and other elected leaders are hypocrites for condemning pot while condoning alcohol use, despite studies showing that alcohol fuels deadly violence, car wrecks and abuse.

Brown said his office has been scorched by profanity-laced e-mails and phone calls - both local and out-of-state - from marijuana backers demanding: "How can you turn down what the voters have commanded?"

"But we've also had calls on the other side from people who are concerned about what this law means for our city and children of Denver.

"Candidly, it is an awkward position to be in, because when the voters speak, they speak," Brown said.

But, he said, the state attorney general, Denver district attorney and city attorney have said the city cannot flout state law.

Said Councilman Michael Hancock: "I think the message is horrendous in this day and age when we're trying to deal with the growth of drug use, particularly by our young people. Once I came out publicly against it, I got quite a few e-mails from across the nation from folks who said: 'Thank you for standing up for our communities on this issue.' "

On TV, Brown said he's trying to defend "Denver's side of the story."

"I think (I-100's passage) was a protest vote by a lot of people who don't think the federal war on drugs is working," the councilman said. "Absolutely, we need a discussion on this stuff . . . But let's not maintain that by passing this, spousal abuse will decline or that this is going to make Denver safer."

Tvert counters that city officials are hiding behind the state law issue, fearful if they enforce I-100 they'll face a law-and-order backlash at the ballot box. "The city attorney and the police and the City Council and the mayor are capable of implementing this," he said. "It's a question of whether they will."

Mayor John Hickenlooper's office has received a couple of dozen calls and e-mails running the spectrum of opinion, said spokeswoman Lindy Eichenbaum Lent.

So far, police spokesman Detective John White said he's received no reports of anyone being arrested for pot possession since the measure passed. But it's only a matter of time, given officers' ticket forms only bear a checkbox for the state marijuana possession violation.

Pinched for pot possession

• City citations for pot posses- sion have dropped from 3,701 cases in 1996 to 2,072 cases in 2004. Percentages are of total arrests and citations.

Year Cases Percentage

1996 3,701 3.6%
1997 3,331 3.3%
1998 3,500 3.4%
1999 3,354 3.4%
2000 3,193 3.4%
2001 2,979 3.4%
2002 2,776 3.4%
2003 2,489 3.5%
2004 2,072 3.2%

Source: Denver Police Department