Pubdate: Thu, 29 Nov 2012
Source: International Herald-Tribune (International)
Copyright: International Herald Tribune 2012
Author: Jack Healy
Page: 1


Anthony Orozco, a 19-year-old community-college student, was driving 
home from a Walmart store with a few friends in this western U.S. 
state one day recently when he was pulled over by the police.

After an officer found marijuana in the car, he was issued a summons 
for possession and drug paraphernalia - petty offenses each carrying 
a $100 fine - and given a court date. "We get treated like 
criminals," Mr. Orozco said. But is he one? In the recent American 
elections, residents of Colorado and Washington State broke a 
longstanding taboo and voted for the legalization of recreational 
marijuana use. As the first American states to treat small amounts of 
marijuana like alcohol, they are poised to become national test cases 
for drug legalization. But no one said it would be simple.

In the uncertain weeks after Colorado's vote, where the measure 
passed with 55 percent support, contradictory reactions by law 
enforcement officials across the state have laid bare a deep 
ambivalence about the big green experiment. Most ambivalent of all is 
the federal government, which still plans to treat the sale and 
cultivation of marijuana as federal crimes.

In Colorado, some police departments and prosecutors have dropped 
hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana cases, or stopped charging adults 
21 years and older for small-scale possession that will be legally 
sanctioned once the laws take effect next month.

Prosecutors in more conservative precincts have nonetheless vowed to 
press ahead with existing marijuana cases and are still citing people 
like Mr. Orozco for possession.

At the same time, several towns from the Denver suburbs to the 
western mountains are voting to block new, state-licensed retail 
marijuana shops from opening in their communities.

"This thing is evolving so quickly that I don't know what's going to 
happen next," said Daniel J. Oates, the police chief in Aurora, just 
east of Denver.

Regulators in Washington State are also scratching their heads. And 
in looking around for guidance on how to set up a system of licenses 
for production, manufacturing, distribution and sales - all by a 
deadline of Dec. 1, 2013 - they say that Colorado, for better or 
worse, is still ahead of most states in figuring out the new road.

"Colorado has a more regulated market, so they will be a good guide," 
said Brian E. Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor 
Control Board. But no place or system, Mr. Smith conceded, can do 
more than suggest what might and might not work. "There's no real 
precedent for us to follow," he said.

Washington's law, I-502, takes effect on Dec. 6, which also leaves a 
year of limbo during which the state licensing system to buy 
marijuana will not yet exist, but legalized possession will. Thorny 
mechanical questions that must be resolved during that year are 
already making waves, like for example, how many licensed marijuana 
stores might be needed to fulfill the law's mandate of "adequate 
access to licensed sources of useable marijuana."

The requirement of "adequate access," which is intended to make sure 
an illegal market does not still flourish to fulfill unmet demand, 
could in turn bump up against other provisions of the new law, 
banning legal cannabis businesses from operating near a school, park, 
playground or child care center. Many of those zones tend to overlap, 
which could mean a requirement of access on one hand and a 
prohibition on the other.

"Nowhere will it be more difficult to site a licensed cannabis 
business than in urban areas, particularly in the Seattle 
metropolitan area," says Ben Livingston, a spokesman for the Center 
for Legal Cannabis, a recently formed research group.

As advocates and state officials plan for a new frontier of legalized 
pot sales, they are also anxiously waiting for direction from the 
federal government.

Many hope the Justice Department will yield; despite some 
high-profile arrests of medical-marijuana patients and sellers, the 
federal government has mostly allowed medical marijuana businesses to 
operate in Colorado, Washington and 16 other states.

For his part, Mr. Oates, the police chief in Aurora, Colorado, sent 
his officers an e-mail on Nov. 21 announcing that the city's attorney 
would no longer be prosecuting small-time marijuana violations for 
anyone 21 years or older, and that the police would, "effective 
immediately," stop charging people for those crimes. "Prosecutorial 
and court resources can be best directed elsewhere," he wrote.

Mr. Oates said the police would enforce city codes regulating medical 
marijuana growers, and they would still pursue drug traffickers and 
dealers. They can still cite people if they are younger than the new 
legal age limit, smoking in public or driving while stoned.

In northern Colorado's Weld County, District Attorney Ken Buck 
represents a stricter view. After the vote, he said his office would 
continue pursuing marijuana possession cases, mostly as a way to 
pressure users into getting treatment. "Our office has an obligation 
to prosecute offenses that were crimes at the time they occurred," 
Mr. Buck said in a statement.

The response has been complicated even in places like rural Mesa 
County, where voters rejected the marijuana initiative. Police in 
Grand Junction, the county's largest city, are no longer citing 
adults for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The county's 
district attorney, Pete Hautzinger, supported that decision, but also 
decided not to dismiss all of the pending possession cases.

"I do not think I'm wasting my time continuing to enforce the law 
until it changes," he said. Mesa County prosecutes about 100-200 
petty marijuana charges every year, compared with as many as 2,000 felonies.

For their part, federal drug agents are likely to balk at allowing 
the state-regulated recreational marijuana shops allowed under the 
new laws, said Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the 
Obama administration.

"The legal question is exactly the same but the stakes are much 
higher with legalization than with the medicinal," Mr. Sabet said. 
"You can't hide behind a white coat any longer."

Several cities are not waiting for federal authorities to act. Some 
local governments have approved moratoriums on any new marijuana 
shops, even though it will be about a year before any can open. Last 
week, the western city of Montrose took up a six-month ban, and is 
likely to pass it next week.

"We don't want to be put in a position where we license somebody and 
then have a big federal issue," said Bob Nicholson, a city council 
member. "Our community voted against this amendment. We're looking at 
what the community voted for versus what the state voted for. There's 
an awful lot of questions."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom