Marijuana: Smoke screen or smoke scene?
Some celebrate new pot law but law enforcement still has concerns
By Michael Maresh
Journal Staff Reporter
That was the comment Cortez resident David Douglas made when giving his thoughts about marijuana being legalized in Colorado.
He had been hoping for months that Amendment 64 would pass.
A few months ago, Douglas moved to Colorado from southeast Georgia so he could smoke a joint without fear of getting arrested by law enforcement if the amendment passed. It passed and Douglas is ready to fire one up.
"I have been begging to get this," he said adding that if you smoke marijuana in Georgia it's considered the same as using crystal methamphetamine.
"I do not want to be put in jail for smoking a joint," said Douglas, who works at the Medicine Man, one of Cortez's medical marijuana facilities.
"I am glad to be in Colorado," he said.
With the passage of Amendment 64, there are a lot of unknowns facing law enforcement agencies across the state after it became legal with Gov. Hickenlooper's signature on Monday.
The law allows people in Colorado to purchase, use and possess small amounts of marijuana.
What is known is law enforcement can no longer issue citations or arrest people for possession or using the drug privately or in their residences as long as it's under the required limit.
Amendment 64 removed Colorado's legal penalties for adults age 21 and over for possessing marijuana and using it in private. It's still against the law to use the drug in public, to possess large amounts of it and for underage people to use it.
The amendment also calls on the Legislature to pass a set of laws to regulate marijuana similar to the way alcohol is regulated. Marijuana could be sold in special stores that are similar to medical marijuana dispensaries, but local governments could ban the stores from their jurisdictions.
"If it's legal it's legal," said Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell. "We will not charge anyone for possessing under an ounce of marijuana."
One of the problems facing law enforcement and prosecutors is how to charge people under 21 who use pot.
"It's unbelievable. We are in a never-never land. We don't know what to do," said Spruell, who campaigned against the passage of Amendment 64.
A few weeks ago, the sheriff said nothing had changed since Hickenlooper had yet to sign the amendment into law.
He said if one of his deputies makes a traffic stop now and sees marijuana in plain view, there is nothing that can be done provided the driver is not under the influence.
Deputies will also not be allowed to confiscate the marijuana.
"As long as they are not using (while driving)," he said. "I don't know what we are going to do."
Spruell said it is common sense to think that drug paraphernalia would be legal too, since the pipes and water pipes are commonly used when smoking the drug.
Driving under the influence will continue to be treated the same whether it's from drugs or alcohol use.
Spruell said he had not sent out a memorandum or letter to his deputies about the new law, but is pretty sure they know pot is now legal on the state level.
"There is no doubt about it. It will increase," Spruell said about DUI incidents and cases.
The sheriff said his department has a number of concerns now that small amounts of marijuana is legal.
"We just don't know where this is going," he reiterated, but added that he thought drug cartels could be coming into the state because of the new law. He also said this new law could attract the criminal element to communities across the state.
While it is legal to purchase pot now, Spruell said it still is a felony for anyone selling it.
That could change when the state sets up the guidelines on who or what businesses may be licensed to sell the drug.
"We just have no idea where this is going to go," Spruell said.
Incoming 22nd Judicial District Attorney Will Furse praised the governor for acting on the amendment so quickly.
"Despite (Hickenlooper's) opposition to the amendment, I believe the governor has acted appropriately in certifying the results of Colorado's popular vote," Furse wrote via email. "While I hardly believe legal battles surrounding this issue have ended, the governor's signature has brought momentary victory to Colorado's fight for state sovereignty."
Most residents who spoke to the Journal on Tuesday supported the use of marijuana in some form.
"I believe it will ultimately be beneficial for the state because of increased tax revenues and a decrease of crimes," said Amy Lichliter, who also works at the Medicine Man.
Roland Alasnis believed marijuana for medical purposes was appropriate, and added alcohol is really the most dangerous drug, and it is legal.
"If you have chronic medical (issues) and you need something to space the pain out, there is nothing wrong with it," he said.
Dan Michaels said the most dangerous drugs are alcohol and tobacco, and since they are legal there is no real reason to continue to make marijuana illegal.
"The reality is there is no reason (not to legalize) it," he said, adding that he is a medical marijuana card holder and the drug has assisted him greatly.
Ronnie Garner, a former police officer, said he voted against Amendment 64 and still believes legalizing marijuana was the wrong thing to do.
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said a lot still must be decided by the Legislature, and added if people follow the rules of Amendment 64 everything will be fine.
Kyle Westall, chief of police in Farmington, N.M. warned people about bringing marijuana into New Mexico since it is still illegal in the Land of Enchantment.
"The obvious concern from our perspective would be that people may confuse the legality of possession and influence," Westall said. "Despite it being legal to possess in Colorado, driving while under the influence is still illegal. Obviously, if traveling to New Mexico, those individuals should make sure the drug is left in Colorado, as we would be obligated to arrest for a violation."
Statewide a little more than 53 percent of the voters favored the amendment, while in Montezuma County voters opposed the amendment by a vote of 6,127 to 5,882.
Three states had legalized marijuana amendments on their ballots in November. Washington voters passed the measure and it became legal last week. Oregon voters did not pass the issue.