Denver Is First City to Legalize Small Amount of Pot
Voters erase all penalties for adults possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. State laws banning it still apply.
By Stephanie Simon
November 3, 2005
DENVER Bring on the jokes about the Mile High City.
Denver on Tuesday became the first city in the nation to wipe out all criminal
and civil penalties for adults caught possessing a small amount of marijuana.
About 54% of voters supported a ballot measure legalizing possession of less
than an ounce of pot by individuals 21 and over.
The ordinance is more radical than pro-marijuana measures approved over the years in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and half a dozen college towns across the country. Most of those initiatives decriminalized marijuana for medical use, or replaced criminal penalties with
small fines or directed police to make enforcement of marijuana laws a low
Denver, by contrast, erased adult possession as an offense entirely.
State laws banning pot still apply in Denver, however. Police for years have
cited most offenders under state law rather than city ordinance, as a matter of
The state law is pre-printed on the front of tickets, so just by checking a box an officer can issue a fine for as much as $200. To use the previous city ordinance which carried the threat of as much as a year in jail if convicted an officer would have to write out the relevant
code by hand.
"Citing under state law has been a tradition here for years
. We intend to keep
doing what we've been doing," said David W. Broadwell, an assistant city
Although the Denver vote may have no practical effect, advocates of relaxed drug laws said it was symbolic. In large part, that's because of the tactics activists used to promote the measure. The marijuana liberalization group SAFER ran a provocative critics said deceitful
campaign to cast the measure as vital to public safety.
On yard signs and billboards, online and in voter forums, campaign director Mason Tvert, 23, tried to persuade voters that marijuana was a safer alternative to alcohol. He argued that street crime and domestic violence would drop if residents were legally allowed to smoke pot
rather than down a six-pack of beer. College campuses too would be safer, he
said, if joints replaced kegs at parties.
In one stunt last month, Tvert dragged a mock corpse in a body bag to City Hall and surrounded it with jugs from Wynkoop Brewery which is owned by Denver's mayor, John W. Hickenlooper. He then piled bags of Doritos in a heap nearby. His point: Alcohol abuse can kill
you. Marijuana gives you the munchies.
City officials reacted angrily to such tactics, warning that pot was a "gateway" to more dangerous drugs. They accused Tvert of confusing the public by using campaign signs that read "Make Denver SAFER." (The group's acronym stands for Safer Alternative for Enjoyable
Recreation.) Tvert insisted people understood his message.
more traditional campaign in Telluride, Colo., failed as voters rejected an
effort to make pot the town's lowest law enforcement priority.
Activists expect Tvert's approach to be taken up around the country
particularly in Nevada, where pro-marijuana forces are preparing a statewide
initiative to tax and regulate pot much like beer or cigarettes.
Oakland passed a similar measure last fall, but it was tabled because it
conflicted with state and federal law.
"Success breeds success," said Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst with the
pro-marijuana group NORML. "I think you'll see this campaign used as a model."
Even Hickenlooper, who opposed the measure, said he thought the vote might prove
"Peoples' attitudes [about marijuana] are changing," the mayor said. "We have
one of the youngest populations of any city in the nation, so it makes sense
that attitudes here might be changing faster."
Another issue on Tuesday's ballot also had national significance: The statewide
vote to suspend the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which was considered the
strictest cap on government spending in the country.
Voters agreed 52% to 48% to lift the cap and to relinquish their claim to an
estimated $3.7 billion in tax refunds. The vote frees Colorado to spend millions
more on higher education, healthcare and transportation.
But it infuriates fiscal conservatives who are pushing spending caps similar to Colorado's in several states, including California, Nevada and Arizona. The California measure is on next week's ballot as Proposition 76; polls show it losing by a substantial margin.