September 25, 2005 in Nation/World

Marijuana enforcement goes to the ballot in Colorado town

Scott Gold Los Angeles Times

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, home to moneyed hippies, artists and nature buffs, Telluride is a live-and-let-live kind of town.

A sign assures visitors that they are in a “civil liberties safe zone.”

The 15-mph speed limit, which applies in most of the town, is largely enforced by placing a police hat on the tip of a stick and perching it in the driver’s seat of a squad car.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that although Telluride cannot legalize marijuana, it may do the next closest thing: officially declare possession of pot for personal use to be the town’s “lowest law enforcement priority.”

In August, the Town Council voted 6-0 to put the issue on the Nov. 1 ballot. Residents will be asked whether to instruct town marshals – the local law enforcement – to make the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana possession their lowest priority. The proposal applies only to the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by people 18 or older.

Several cities already have what proponents term “sensible” pot ordinances, most notably Seattle, where voters in 2003 approved an initiative to make the possession of small amounts of marijuana law enforcement’s lowest priority.

Still, Telluride’s vote will be closely watched, experts said, because it is the first marijuana ballot proposal since the Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal government could enforce its zero-tolerance policy on pot, even in the 10 states that permit its use for medical purposes. Colorado is among those states; the others are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Executive Director Allen F. St. Pierre, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the fact that the Supreme Court did not strike down the state laws seemed to suggest “concern by justices about thwarting local control, local values.”

People who favor relaxing marijuana laws – many of whom believe the government wastes public resources by targeting low-level drug offenders – hope Telluride sets a national example, St. Pierre said.

“The great disconnect at the policy level is here in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Congress is frozen in a sort of reefer madness that states and localities are not.”

But Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, said the agenda behind local initiatives “clearly is the legalization of drugs. … They have made it very clear that they are going to keep pushing.”

Her argument has gained more traction here recently than it might have a few years ago.

A famously fun-loving town with a year-round population of about 2,000 and an “in-season” population close to 10,000, Telluride has become a ritzy resort in recent years and is peppered with log cabin mansions and swanky restaurants that require reservations – even if you can still wear flip-flops or the T-shirt you hiked in all day.

But the town’s newer arrivals have tempered its freewheeling ways.

“Telluride is really in transition,” Chief Marshal Mary Heller said.

J. Michael Dorsey, who served in several high-profile federal government posts before he retired, moved to town a year ago. He was the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing during the Reagan administration, and he sat on the national drug policy board.

And he has become a leading critic of the Telluride proposal.

Dorsey said the proposal was misguided, partly because voters should not establish law enforcement priorities. He also objected to a second portion of the initiative, which would declare that Telluride would approve if Colorado decided to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana use.

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