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|June 4 - June 10, 2009
A fine to fit the crime
A Longmont group is pushing to reduce the penalty for pot possession and hopes to get people talking along the way
by Dana Logan
“Penalties against a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. The National Commission on Marijuana and Abuse concluded years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations. Therefore, I support legislation amending federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.”
— President Jimmy Carter to Congress, 1977
Standing before Longmont City Council on May 19, a group calling themselves “Free Marijuana in Longmont” proposed a new city ordinance that would change the way Longmont residents are punished for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under state law, adults who are found to be in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana face a citation for which they must appear in court and a pay up to a $100 fine.
At the meeting, Free Marijuana in Longmont asked City Council to reduce that penalty to a $5 fine within Longmont city limits.
“Longmont, being a home-rule town, can pretty much do whatever it wants to do. And that’s why this is an opportunity for Longmont to step up to the plate and to say, you’re right, this is a ridiculous thing that’s been happening. Here’s something we can do about it right now,” says Bo Shaffer, outreach director for the Front Range chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Shaffer is also advocating for the group Free Marijuana in Longmont and their goals.
“The City Council could save us a whole lot of trouble by stepping up to the plate and dealing with this, but we don’t really anticipate that they will. If the City Council doesn’t do it, or votes it down, we have to go to a petitioning process and put it on the ballot,” Shaffer says.
And Shaffer is right to anticipate that City Council won’t be stepping forward on this issue.
“I don’t think we will. I can only speak for myself, I can’t speak for other council members, but I think we’re satisfied with current law. It seems to be working well. I’d like to maintain what we have and not reduce the penalties,” says City Councilwoman Karen Benker, Ward II.
“We have so many very important pressing issues facing us right now — primarily economic because of the severe recession that we’re in — and I just think we need to be spending our time working on ways to try to keep Longmont businesses afloat and to provide services to our residents. Those are my priorities right now, and I have a feeling most council members share that view,” she says.
Mary Blue, council member at large, concurs. She says that it hasn’t been an agenda item and she doesn’t foresee that it will be.
“I have heard no council member propose that we make any changes at this point. I don’t see any reason to change what we have, knowing what I know,” says Blue. “We’ve got a lot of other things on our plate right now. It’s not rising up as something that will benefit that many people.”
And Councilwoman Benker points out that she thinks residents of Longmont are content with the way things are, too.
“When you’re on City Council, you don’t do public-opinion surveys. But I’ve had a couple of e-mails from local residents and my sense is that Longmont residents are satisfied with current law,” says Benker.
But Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation) says that support for reform of marijuana laws is growing. In fact, he says that in a recent statewide vote to reform marijuana laws, 41 percent of Coloradans were in favor of reform (not enough to change the law), but a majority of Longmont residents voted in favor of change.
“I think that there’s not just growing support on the issue — we are starting to see majorities in many places — but also growing momentum in the discussion in terms of how often it’s being discussed. And a lot of people, as it’s being discussed, begin to re-evaluate their opinions on it. We’re going to see some major changes, and it’s just a matter of time before there’s momentum in the legislature,” says Tvert, who is not affiliated with the group Free Marijuana in Longmont.
But since Longmont’s City Council does not appear to agree that sentiment is changing, Free Marijuana in Longmont is moving forward to ask residents directly by putting it on November’s ballot. In order to get the issue in front of voters, they have to collect
3,485 signatures, but before that even, they must submit a petition to get those signatures.
“They’ve turned a petition form into me for me to approve it,” says Valerie Skitt, Longmont’s city clerk. “I have until Friday (June 5) to give them approval on the form they’ve turned in, and then if they have to make any corrections, then they have to resubmit it until I give them final approval on the actual form before they start collecting signatures. There are some technical things that they probably have to take one more shot at it, but they’re close. They will be able to start collecting signatures, it’s just a matter of when — whether it’s a week from now or 10 days from now or whatever,” Skitt explains.
But the “when,” it turns out, is a crucial element.
“One of the issues with Longmont that makes it more difficult than other cities is that there’s a set window when you’re able to collect signatures and that makes things a little more difficult,” says Tvert.
In fact, once their petition is approved by Skitt, Free Marijuana in Longmont can begin collecting signatures. But once the first person signs on the line, the group has only 21 days to collect the remaining 3,484 autographs to get the issue on the ballot and turn it back in to the city clerk. And, on top of that time constraint, there’s another.
“If they want to get it on November’s ballot, I’d probably need those [signatures] no later than the third week in July or so,” says Skitt.
Shaffer says that given the time limits they have to conform to, they are gearing up to go ahead with this.
“With a lot of ballot initiative efforts, one of the hardest elements is collecting enough signatures, and I certainly hope that that’s something that they’re able to do. It becomes an expensive and time-consuming effort,” says Tvert.
But whether or not the initiative passes, or even gets on the ballot, Shaffer says that the main goal is to open up a dialogue.
“What we’re trying to do is bring notice to the cause. We’re trying to basically normalize how people think about marijuana. It’s time we got it out of the criminal realm and started treating it like it is. It’s a substance just like caffeine and alcohol and all these other things. Making people criminals for using it is one of the more outrageous things that’s going on in our society,” Shaffer says.
“Our idea with this is, not necessarily that it’s that important to reduce the fine from $100 to $5, but it gets people talking about it, gets it out there. Let’s get the truth out so that people can make a decision and not be listening to all this rhetoric that’s been passed out for the last 70 years,” he says.
And each time marijuana laws are challenged, more perspectives are allowed to be considered as part of the conversation.
“I think it’s always a good thing to have people talking about it and sharing their opinion about it. Because the more people talk about it, the more reasonable people tend to recognize it’s a serious issue and one where there’s a fairly simple solution and one that we can reach soon,” says Tvert.
Shaffer is convinced that the time has come to find the solution.
“There are 14 states now with medical marijuana. There are several states that are considering full-out legalization and taxation. It’s time to go there. It’s time to move away from making criminals out of people who aren’t hurting anyone,” Shaffer says.
In fact, Shaffer says that they’ve had the plan on the drawing board for nearly two years and had hoped to propose a similar initiative in Boulder last year, but didn’t have the personnel to make it happen. But he claims that the current social and political climate makes this an excellent time to bring the issue to the forefront. He cites the May 18 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that denied an appeal by two California counties that refused to implement the state’s medical marijuana laws. The court’s action clears the way for states to legalize non-medical use of marijuana despite federal prohibition of the drug.
In addition to the court’s decision, the Obama administration’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, recently stated that the U.S. needs to get rid of the idea that we are fighting a war on drugs. He believes this is a crucial element in making a shift toward favoring treatment over incarceration. Both of these recent occurrences convince Shaffer that the timing could be perfect for Longmont to set an example for the rest of Colorado, as well as states across the country.
“The drug czar has come out and said, we need to end the drug war; it’s not working. We need to remove it from the criminal realm and put it into the medical realm. That’s the bottom line and the truth of the matter,” says Shaffer.
But despite the admission by the Obama administration’s drug czar that the matter should be medical and not criminal, for now at least, it’s still a police matter.
Commander Tim Lewis of the Longmont Police Department says that citations for marijuana are quite common. According to the Longmont Police Department, between June 1, 2008, and May 31, 2009, there were 233 summons issued for marijuana possession.
“I think it’s common across the country,” says Lewis. “It’s not that police are out looking for it. It’s usually aberrant behavior that brings the attention to law enforcement. We don’t have time to be looking for simple possession charges, and that’s not where we’re putting our resources. But there’s usually criminal aberrant behavior that draws police’s attention to that individual, and then you find a violation of law.”
But even though he says that police don’t go looking for simple possession, he also says that there’s a different side of the pot debate that he thinks gets overlooked.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric on the subject. There are a lot of people that believe that it’s a harmless substance, that it doesn’t create any harm or any impairment. And unfortunately, in the world that I am, I see the people that use it and are influenced by it and the decisions they make and the violence that comes from it. We’re seeing 50-, 60-year-old people that still use it, and they’re very happy with it. But I also see a very dark side of that world and it has nothing to do with it being illegal. It has to do with people that are using it and the decisions they make based on their desire for it,” Lewis says.
But he also admits that a person who has less than an ounce in their pocket standing on the street corner is not, in and of itself, a threat to public safety. Commander Lewis is concerned about what that person does when they are under the influence of the drug — driving a vehicle, for instance.
But the proposed change to Longmont’s city code wouldn’t condone or allow driving under the influence of marijuana; it would simply make the penalty for mere possession an extremely minimal fine.
And Lewis says that despite any reservations he may have over the potential change, if this proposal were to become law, the Longmont police would uphold the law.
“Those decisions are made by legislators, by the citizens, by constitutional amendments, and then we follow them as others decide they want them enforced. We are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the state of Colorado and city ordinances, and whatever those are, we uphold them and support them and follow through with an oath,” says Lewis.
Ultimately, though, he says that the change would have little impact on how law enforcement carries out their job.
“It sounds like it still would be a violation. We’d have to see what it is once it’s passed. If [the change is] only on the fine then that’ll impact the courts, not what we do,” he says.
And as Commander Lewis points out, until voters have had their say, it’s hard to know what’s in store for Longmont residents and
“What matters is that we get the issue out; people see it, people start to think about it and start to find out the truth,” says Shaffer. “It’s a small step towards a bigger issue, but why we’re behind it is to open up dialogue.”
For More Info:
If you are interested in helping Free Marijuana in Longmont collect signatures to get their measure on the ballot this November, go to www.free-marijuana-in-longmont.info or call 720-323-0570.
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