Monday, September 3, 2007

DENVER — Activists here are moving to liberalize the city’s marijuana-possession laws in time for next year’s Democratic National Convention.

The Denver City Council voted 13-0 last week to place a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would make prosecuting adults with an ounce or less of marijuana “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.”

Not that the council had much choice. Activists with Citizens for a Safer Denver gathered almost 6,000 signatures to back the proposal, forcing the council to place it on the ballot or approve an identical ordinance.

Mason Tvert, the group’s executive director, said the petition was undertaken with an eye to the Democrats’ Aug. 24-28 convention. Encouraging the anticipated throng of protesters to choose marijuana over alcohol would ensure a calmer atmosphere, he said. Groups such as the Recreate 68 Alliance, named after the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago known for clashes between protesters and police, plan massive demonstrations and civil disobedience.

“Tens of thousands of people are going to come here to protest and rally,” Mr. Tvert said. “If we allow alcohol use to be at the center, we’re asking for trouble. But if we allow protesters to use marijuana, then maybe they’ll be less inclined to use alcohol and cause problems.”

Before the vote, Mr. Tvert offered to make a deal with the council: The group would withdraw the petition if the mayor and council agreed to place a moratorium on adult marijuana arrests during the Democratic convention.

“isitors and city residents should not face the threat of arrest for simply making the rational, safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol, if that is what they prefer,” Mr. Tvert said.

It was an offer city officials could refuse, and did. What’s more, the council excoriated Citizens for a Safer Denver for abusing the trust of voters who signed the petition.

“At that point I … said, ‘What kind of game is this where an organization thinks they can negotiate with the will of the voters?’ ” council member Judy Montero said. “I was appalled.”

Rachel Gordon, spokeswoman for the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee, declined to comment on the issue.

Denver already boasts the most liberal marijuana law in the nation. Two years ago, voters approved a ballot initiative making it legal for adults to possess an ounce or less of marijuana. But that ordinance was superseded by state law, which bans marijuana possession of any kind.

Council member Carol Boigon said any real effort to reform the city’s drug laws would have to go through the state legislature. “If you’re serious, go to the state,” she said.

A dozen U.S. cities, including Santa Barbara and San Francisco, have enacted laws placing adult possession of small amounts of marijuana at the bottom of their law-enforcement priorities. In Seattle, city officials reported that there was “no evidence of adverse effect” from the ordinance.

“Seattle is proud to serve as an example of a city that has established a more sensible marijuana policy that is safe, effective, and inexpensive,” two Seattle City Council members, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, said in a letter to the Denver council.

Their assurances failed to sway Denver council members, almost all of whom declared their intention to oppose the measure in November.

“I want people to understand that there were some real shenanigans with this initiative,” council President Michael Hancock said. “There’s no way I would vote yes on this, and I’ll do everything I can to let the public know.”

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