November 1, 2009

Breckenridge Voters Likely To Legalize Pot

The eyes of the nation will be fixed on the small community of Breckenridge, Colorado this week as residents of the quaint Rocky Mountain ski resort are set to go to the polls to decide whether or not to legalize marijuana "” a decision that, despite the modest size of the city, is sure to resonate throughout the country as the grassroots movement to legalize medicinal marijuana continues to gain ground.

The municipal measure that will be put to voters on Tuesday will, if passed, legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of pot as well as marijuana paraphernalia like pipes and bongs.

In recent years, municipalities around the country "” including Denver "” have been taking measure to decriminalize possession of the green stuff.  Advocates of medicinal marijuana say that a "yes" vote in Breckenridge this week will move Colorado one step closer to state-wide legalization.

Other major U.S. cities that have passed laws permitting recreational use and possession of pot include Seattle and San Francisco.  The state of Alaska also allows its residents to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana at their homes, while California supporters of legalization say they plan to take the issue to a statewide vote next year as well.

The particular significance of the Breckenridge vote next week hinges on the fact that they have decided to include the decriminalization of paraphernalia on the ballot as well.

"I don't think there's anywhere else in the country that has legalized paraphernalia," explained Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington.

The sale and possession of pot paraphernalia has always been a dubious issue in Colorado as well as most other states, as so-called "head shops" are permitted to sell gadgets for toking as long as they are ostensibly labeled as being for use with tobacco. 

Supporters of legalization in Breckenridge say that it's just not right to slap criminal charges on people who smoke pot recreationally in the privacy of their own home, which is currently a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $100 fee.

"We don't want to spend our tax dollars prosecuting this, so we're saying, let's just stop it," contends Breckenridge attorney Sean McAllister, who was responsible for getting the ordinance on the ballot.

Other local supporters include a prominent member of the town council and the local paper the Summit Daily News.

Observers say that the measure has a very strong chance of passing.  In a statewide vote to legalize pot possession in 2006, Breckenridge residents voted in favor almost 3-to-1, though the measure ultimately failed on the state level.

McAllister also said that he was able to collect some 1,500 signatures in a petition to get the measure on the ballot, though city ordinances only require 495.

Opponents of the measure like Police Chief Rick Holman, have contended that legalization will just create conflicts between state and city laws, making more work for local policemen, who will have just have to take offenders to the Summit County Sheriff's Department rather than to the local police station.

Currently, Colorado state law allows more than 10,000 residents to use medical marijuana.

The vote in Breckenridge embedded in the larger national debate over how to regulate and enforce medical marijuana laws as well as how to reconcile difference between state and municipal laws with federal laws. 

In recent months even the U.S. Justice Department seems to have taken a more relaxed stance towards the issue, as it advised federal prosecutors not to waste their time chasing after medical marijuana users who have acted within the bounds of state laws.

Despite the fact that a clear majority of Breckenridge's 3,300 voters appear to stand in support of the measure, advocates worry that the timing of the vote could work to their disadvantage.  As the initiative will come to the ballot during the lull in the weeks before ski business picks up, supporters worry that not enough people will get out to vote.

But McAllister, who sees the vote in its broader historical context, remains confident that the measure will pass thanks to the public's changing attitude towards marijuana.

"Prohibition ended by localities and states saying they didn't want it anymore. And that's exactly how marijuana prohibition is going to end"”from the ground up."