Americans compromise on pot

September 17, 2007

Michael Booth, Denver Post

Take one swift glance at a U.S. map coded to reflect the widely varying marijuana laws in each state, and drug policy seems to range from irrational to incoherent.

But dig into the details of public opinion, user behavior and police enforcement, and a more lucid picture of American attitudes comes into focus: People have learned to live with pot, up to a fine point.

As Denver ponders yet another ballot measure on marijuana Nov. 6 - to make pursuit of small amounts of pot the "lowest law-enforcement priority" - many communities may already have reached a complicated compromise that reflects the wisdom of research and the consistency of survey results.

In a growing number of states and large cities, possessing and smoking a little pot is either a minor offense or no crime at all, while growing or distributing the drug still gets you in big trouble.

Growing or using pot for medicinal purposes is widely accepted, while police and defense attorneys argue the details of what constitutes therapeutic amounts.

Almost no one wants kids to have free access to marijuana, while the stigma of adult use drops to the level of a speeding ticket.

Most voters want police to stop arresting the casual pot smoker, but they also don't yet want the state to sanction a legalized marijuana industry, in the manner of alcohol or tobacco.

In the more progressive states, such as Colorado, voters need to ask themselves "why the current state law is insufficient," said Rosalie Pacula, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center in California, whose work is respected by both sides of the marijuana debate.

"Making it a low priority is already being done. So who is this about?"

It's about forcing the police and public officials to heed previous public votes decriminalizing pot and making the community acknowledge that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, argues SAFER, the group behind the current ballot initiative.

"Some laws are just not feasible anymore," said Mason Tvert, SAFER's leader. "Marijuana-possession laws are at the top of that list."

Defending the status quo

Others counter that there's a reason for the status quo. A majority of people "want it to be illegal, but they want it to be a low law-enforcement priority," and it already is, said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who opposes the Denver ballot measure.

And from a far different office, a similar pronouncement: "Americans are making a very clear and logical distinction," said Allen St. Pierre, director of NORML, the nation's most prominent advocate of liberalizing marijuana laws. "Possession is OK, but as soon as you introduce the idea of individuals growing" or the government regulating legal distribution, "you lose support in all of our polling."

Denver voters will decide in November whether to instruct police to largely ignore possession of small amounts of marijuana. SAFER and Tvert also led the successful vote removing all penalties for petty marijuana possession in Denver in 2005, and the failed statewide vote in 2006 to erase the remaining Colorado penalties for possession.

As it stands now, Denver's possession penalties were wiped off the books, but city police say they must - and want to - enforce the state law, which makes possession of up to an ounce a Class 2 misdemeanor with a $100 fine. Thus it remains a criminal offense that can interfere with jobs, student loans and other pursuits.

"I think the voters of this country still advocate enforcement of marijuana laws," said Denver police Sgt. Ernie Martinez, who also is state president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. Though Tvert, St. Pierre and other liberalization advocates question how Martinez can draw that conclusion after Denver's 2005 vote, Martinez maintains the city's position is that "marijuana is still a dangerous drug."

Martinez doesn't buy SAFER's comparison of pot with alcohol. "Examples of failed drug policy can already be found in alcohol, or cigarettes for that matter, so why make it worse by failing to enforce marijuana policy? It simply doesn't make public-policy sense."

Tvert, for his part, is infuriated by suggestions that the public has settled on a marijuana policy that feels fair and doesn't want major change.

"Your question, in my opinion, is like asking a pro-lifer why they can't just settle on the compromise that abortion is legal but there are some restrictions on it. Should they just give up?" Tvert said. "This notion that change isn't possible and people should live with oppressive laws a majority disagrees with actually disgusts me."

Twelve states have now largely decriminalized possession of marijuana, though support for decriminalization varies between about 40 percent and 65 percent, depending on the vote, the poll or the state in question.

Supreme Court decision

Thirteen states allow medical use of marijuana with a prescription; national polls show up to 73 percent support for medical marijuana, though a recent Supreme Court decision gave precedent to federal laws that still prohibit any use.

Liberalization advocates were thrilled to see Nevada's vote on state-sanctioned marijuana sales gain 44 percent support in 2006.

A respected national survey by the University of Chicago, however, says support for legalization - making marijuana sales the equivalent of alcohol and tobacco - stands at about 32 percent, up steadily from 19 percent in 1973 but still far from a majority.

Support for legalization "has plateaued," agreed NORML's St. Pierre. "So it's up to the advocates of reform to build enough public support to lead our policymakers to do the right thing."

Reformers remain angry, though, that public officials and police give the impression that marijuana laws are no longer a threat to the average citizen.

Growing "one plant" in Colorado is the same level of felony as sex assault on a child, said Brian Vicente, a Denver attorney and director of the legalization-advocacy group Sensible Colorado. Other defense attorneys say police ignore the public's endorsement of medical marijuana and zealously prosecute licensed growers who violate minor provisions of the confusing laws.

Misdemeanor marijuana arrests in Denver and the nation actually have gone up since the public started voting to decriminalize, they add. Denver arrests rose from 2,151 in 2003 to 2,446 last year, said Vicente, who requested police-department statistics.

"Most arrests for possession are cited by a ticket and a fine," responded Martinez. "Most people don't go to jail."

The biggest surprise in this year's vote may be how open to discussion all sides profess to be. Public debates on where to redraw the marijuana boundaries have become a respectable pastime, if not always a quiet one. Pundits such as conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and even The Denver Post editorial page now advocate full legalization.

In "for the long haul"

Martinez said voting forums make it easier to define the city's position. "It's a great educational place. It brings up some great debates, and it allows us to tell our side of the story on enforcement and prevention," he said.

And while Tvert disputes nearly every fact offered by the police, he sees each campaign as an open-ended classroom for Americans.

"This is not about an end-game with one election," Tvert said. "We're fighting 70-plus years of lies, propaganda and imbalanced laws. ... We're in this for the long haul, and we've come incredibly far here in Denver in just two and a half years."

Staff writer Michael Booth can be reached at 303-954-1686 or mbooth@denverpost.com.



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