Sheriffs panel takes on legal pot, gun laws and Joe DiSalvo

by Dorothy Atkins, Special to the Aspen Daily News
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo was notably the odd-man-out during a County Sheriffs of Colorado panel held at the Limelight Hotel Thursday.

The panel was a part of a four-day biannual County Sheriffs of Colorado conference, which Aspen hosted for the first time. DiSalvo and five other Colorado county sheriffs answered policy questions from Aspen Daily News Managing Editor Curtis Wackerle and The Aspen Times General Manager Samantha Johnston.

Throughout the discussion, DiSalvo took friendly jabs from other Colorado county sheriffs regarding his seemingly lenient positions on pot laws, gun control and his overall attitude toward law enforcement.

All five of the sheriffs on the panel with DiSalvo expressed their frustrations with the contradictory state and federal laws on pot. In 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which made marijuana sales legal in the state, but it’s still considered a schedule I controlled substance under federal law.

“It’s a disaster,” said retired Cheyenne County Sheriff Ken Putnam of making pot legal in Colorado. “There are too many unknowns.”

Another sheriff argued that making marijuana legal was dividing the United States.

“My concern is this is a disintegration of the republic,” said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, since the law represents a state trying to override federal authority.

Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap noted that citations for driving under the influence of drugs were up in his county by 400 percent since marijuana was made legal.

“That’s troubling,” he said, adding that he’s never seen a successful CEO who smokes weed.

 Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News
(from left to right) Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap, Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin, retired Cheyenne County Sheriff Ken Putnam, Gilpin County Sheriff Bruce Hartman, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo lead a panel discussion at the County Sheriffs of Colorado conference at the Limelight Hotel on Thursday.

Meanwhile, DiSalvo said his biggest concern about legalizing marijuana is problems associated with cash flow. Most banks won’t give pot shops credit or allow them to open bank accounts, because the federal government insures banks. That means marijuana stores have to operate as cash-only businesses.

When DiSalvo mentioned he has offered his deputies to escort pot shop owners as they deposit cash at banks, one of the sheriffs in the audience shouted back.

“You’re legalizing money laundering,” he said.

DiSalvo noted that county sheriffs represent their own constituents and don’t have to all agree politically. Despite their political differences, the Colorado sheriffs respect each other, DiSalvo said.

“We respected Joe until a few minutes ago,” shouted another sheriff in the crowd in jest.

Ever since DiSalvo first entered law enforcement, people have made fun of where he’s from, DiSalvo said, but he takes the comments in stride.

“Pitkin County’s the butt of every joke,” DiSalvo said.

Jokes aside, DiSalvo expressed his concern on how to keep his deputies from being too aggressive or too lenient in their enforcement of the law. The county also lacks the mental health services it needs to treat the local population, he said. DiSalvo also expressed his concerns about the lack of emergency funding from the state in case of a wildfire.

All of the county sheriffs had issues with the lack of funding for their departments.

The County Sheriffs of Colorado conference ends today with appearances by Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

Last year, Hickenlooper signed two controversial gun-control bills, which are the subject of a lawsuit. One concerns expanded background checks for firearm purchases, while the other puts a 15-round cap on gun magazine sizes. DiSalvo was one of only a handful of Colorado sheriffs who did not participate in the lawsuit.