With the passage of Amendment 64 being heralded as a large blow to the federal government’s war on drugs, one local aspect has slipped under the radar: There may not be a sea change in how marijuana-possession cases are prosecuted in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The constitutional amendment, which legalizes recreational use of the drug in Colorado, passed by a 53-to-47 percent margin statewide.
Gov. John Hickenlooper must certify the results of the election by Dec. 6, but prosecutors in Boulder and Denver have already said they will no longer prosecute those 21 and older for possessing pot or growing six or fewer marijuana plants, as dictated in the amendment.
Boulder County’s prosecutor has said about 50 pending cases will be dropped, while in Washington state, which passed a similar bill, prosecutors have dismissed an estimated 220 cases.
Martin Beeson, district attorney of the 9th Judicial District that covers Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, said Thursday he is not taking similar steps.
For those who violated the law before the bill takes effect no later than Jan. 5, 2013, “those prosecutions will continue,” he said. “Those lucky enough to be operating under a different set of laws will not be prosecuted.”
But the point is nearly moot, according to Beeson and Aspen prosecutors.
Beeson said his office, in response to a request from the Aspen Daily News, ran a report of how many cases in the 9th Judicial District involve strictly possession of less than 2 ounces.
The conclusion: “Rarely if ever is that the sole charge,” he said, adding that while he didn’t have exact numbers, “I’d be surprised if we even have a case or two.”
And Aspen Deputy District Attorney Richard Nedlin said that in the four years he’s prosecuted misdemeanors and petty offenses, he has not pursued a single case involving only possession of less than 2 ounces.
Amendment 64 proponent Brian Vicente said he found that “just impossible” to believe.
“If I’m pulled over in January for speeding and I have a bag of marijuana in the back, I cannot be cited for that,” he said. “If the same thing happened six months ago in Aspen, I’d have a criminal drug case.”
But local prosecutors said in every case similar to Vicente’s scenario that they have handled, the marijuana-possession count is dropped as part of plea negotiations.
Vicente said he would be shocked if Pitkin County truly had not prosecuted anyone for mere possession in recent years.
“If they haven’t, that’s great,” he said.
But he also brought up the cultivation aspect of Amendment 64, which allows six plants for personal use.
“I’d be very surprised if no one has been prosecuted for six plants or less,” Vicente said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Arnold Mordkin, however, said that is the case: In his four years as Aspen’s top prosecutor, he said he cannot remember a single prosecution involving a grow operation.
District Attorney Mark Hurlbert of the 5th Judicial District, which covers the Eagle County section of the Roaring Fork Valley, had a similar stance as Beeson’s.
“There’s a misperception that police officers are scanning the streets looking for small amounts of drugs,” he said. “The reality is our officers are looking for hard drugs and large amounts of them.”
Hurlbert said that petty offenses of marijuana possession are routinely dropped when the drug is found in drunken-driving cases and the like.
“Even before Amendment 64, possession of under 2 ounces was a low priority for our office,” he said. “Most cases involving a petty offense marijuana charge were filed along with other, bigger charges.
“I can’t remember the last time we had just a marijuana-possession case.”
Glenwood Springs attorney Sherry Caloia, who was leading last week in her bid to unseat Beeson (final election results will be released next week), said that if she’s elected district attorney, she will consult with other prosecutors before deciding how to proceed in light of Amendment 64’s passage.
“I would certainly take into account that there was a vote,” she said, adding that when the law is enacted it will be implemented. “Doing prosecutions of small amounts of marijuana is not the best use of our time or our resources.”
Beeson said the larger issue is that the “state voted to violate federal law.”
“The state of Colorado has positioned itself for a confrontation with the federal government,” he said.