Last week’s decision by Colorado voters to legalize the recreational use of marijuana has triggered an avalanche of local, state and national reaction. Over the next year, myriad constitutional, statutory, regulatory and tax issues stemming from Amendment 64 will be hotly debated in the halls of Congress, the state Capitol and right here in the Yampa Valley.
While there will be ample time to argue about some of the thornier issues Amendment 64 will force legislators at all levels to confront, the amendment does require state and local law enforcement officials across Colorado to make immediate decisions when it comes to citizens 21 and older found in possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana between now and the moment the amendment takes effect.
Specifically, Amendment 64 sets a time schedule for the creation of state laws and regulations that will guide the establishment and licensing of marijuana retail stores and associated facilities that will, realistically, delay lawful sales until 2014 at the earliest. But personal possession will be legal within a matter of weeks.
Article V, Section 1(4) of the Colorado Constitution mandates that the governor provide an official declaration of the vote to pass the amendment “not later than thirty days after the vote has been canvassed.” In other words, even if Gov. John Hickenlooper keeps begging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to threaten Coloradans with federal intervention when it comes to the cultivation and sale of marijuana, possession of small amounts of marijuana will soon be legal under Colorado law no matter what the feds do.
To their credit, most local law enforcement officials in Routt County have accepted that the passage of Amendment 64 means there is no justifiable rationale to prosecute those found in possession of small amounts of pot during the gray period before the amendment is legally in force. One notable exception is District Attorney Brett Barkey, who serves as the top prosecutor for Routt County. Barkey, seemingly cloaked in a cloud of prosecutorial callousness, told the Steamboat Today on Thursday afternoon that he has no plans to drop charges that are pending in the courts related to petty marijuana offenses. Hopefully, Routt County judges will throw Barkey and his petty marijuana cases out of their courtrooms.
Fortunately, our local police leadership consists of men with more maturity and common sense than Barkey. On Wednesday, I spoke with Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins and Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae. Both stated that as soon as Amendment 64 passed, they instructed their officers to not cite anyone 21 and older for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana. In fact, anticipating that Amendment 64 would pass, Chief Rae proactively held a departmental meeting on Election Day to inform his officers of his decision. Once the election results were tallied, Capt. Jerry Stabile repeated Rae’s order in an emailed directive to Steamboat police officers.
Given that both Chief Rae and Sheriff Wiggins publicly opposed Amendment 64, they are to be commended for appropriately using their discretionary authority to not charge anyone with possession during the period of legal limbo before Amendment 64 constitutionally precludes those charges.
But beware. Before marijuana users get carried away in a celebratory haze, they would be wise to fully grasp that while Amendment 64 legalizes the personal possession and private use of an ounce or less of marijuana for those 21 and older under Colorado law, there are still a significant number of state and federal laws that remain in effect and could result in life-altering criminal charges.
Based on my conversations with Sheriff Wiggins and Chief Rae, there is no doubt that law enforcement officers in the Yampa Valley will arrest and charge citizens who violate drug laws — including those involving marijuana — that are not eliminated by Amendment 64. After all, 64 is not a Get Out of Jail Free card for those who wander beyond the boundaries of the amendment.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.