Decriminalize It

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com

Decriminalize It

by Ari Armstrong

[The following article originally appeared in the February 5, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.]

Last September 16, Seattle out-Bouldered Boulder when the Washington city passed Initiative 75 with 58.6% of the popular vote. That measure states the "Police Department... shall make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, where the marijuana was intended for adult personal use, the City's lowest law enforcement priority." A search for "Seattle" at the Marijuana Policy Project's Web page (www.mpp.org) will bring up the text of the initiative.

If Seattle can do it, why can't progressive Boulder? At least one city council member is on board. When asked if he supported the idea, Shaun McGrath replied, "Yes! The 'war on drugs' has been a costly failure, particularly with regard to marijuana -- a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. We need to stop treating drug users as criminals, and treat them instead as people with disabilities needing treatment. I helped establish and managed the Western Governors Association's Drug Policy program with then-Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico... WGA assisted the western states establish... harm reduction strategies, drug treatment in prison, and drug courts."

Mayor Will Toor said he'd have to see the specifics of any proposal in the context of current practices. He didn't have a problem with the idea in principle: "I'd lean in that direction... I've never understood why we as a society are locking people up for using marijuana."

Interestingly, while Boulder has a lengthy section of rules pertaining to alcohol use, it has no ordinance covering marijuana. Thus, local police and the county sheriff's department enforce state marijuana laws. Assistant City Attorney Walt Fricke noted charges are handled by county or district courts, unless the case is kicked up to the federal level.

Colorado's laws prohibiting marijuana are less draconian than those in some states. Statute 18-18-406 imposes a fine "of not more than one hundred dollars" for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Public use of marijuana can result in a few days in jail. The first offense of having less than eight ounces of marijuana carries a misdemeanor charge, while possession of larger amounts, distribution, or a subsequent conviction can be charged as a felony. In 2000 voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes, under certain conditions.

Sheriff Joseph Pelle said his department focuses on methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin: "hard drugs are a higher priority for us in terms of resources." However, he added, "when we come across marijuana violations, particularly when it involves growing it or distributing it, we have to take action, and we do take action." He said marijuana is sometimes found incidentally in response to a disturbance call or alarm. He might also deploy undercover officers to break up open-air drug dealing, often working with a multi-agency task force.

Police Chief Mark Beckner commented, "Well, first of all, I am not aware of anyone getting prison time for possession of [marijuana] for personal use. Furthermore, it is already a very low priority for most police departments, including ours. About the only time we enforce it is when we see a violation occur right in front of us in public. Then, you only get a summons. I would much rather see our legislators work on the alcohol underage drinking issue. Our current laws do not seem to be working and alcohol abuse is a much bigger problem."

So, while an ordinance in Boulder might not dramatically change current policies, it might formally establish that crimes against person and property are a higher priority. A local measure might also influence state and national policy. Perhaps the time has come for Colorado to implement more thorough reforms, even the complete legalization of marijuana (for adults). Cities might also consider limiting the involvement of local police in task forces involving federal agents, particularly when the case involves the forfeiture of property.

My view is that drug prohibition is a disastrous policy that causes violence and other harms. I have no problem prohibiting minors from buying certain items like drugs, and certainly people ought not operate vehicles or other heavy machinery while impaired. But generally adults who use and trade marijuana ought not be treated as criminals.

Consuming marijuana should be viewed as a choice, not a disease or a crime. Those who think using marijuana or other drugs is inherently immoral are free to avoid them and attempt to persuade others not to use them. Of course, the responsibility of parents with respect to their children is much greater.

Many, however, do not believe using marijuana is wrong. An almost unlimited number of more destructive behaviors (irresponsible sex, alcoholism) remain legal, as is appropriate in a free society. Use of marijuana for a variety of medical ailments is clearly beneficial. One of the problems noted by Sheriff Pelle, open-air drug dealing, is the direct consequence of prohibition.

Even if recreational use of marijuana is deemed immoral, the police-state tactics needed to prohibit the use of marijuana are manifestly morally objectionable.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com