Marijuana legalization in Denver has proponents planning

Denver citizens voted earlier this month to legalize marijuana use for some residents, a success that has activists planning further initiatives.

On Nov. 1, a measure that made possession of marijuana legal for citizens over the age of 21 passed with 54 percent approval. However, the substance is still illegal under state and federal law, meaning users are still subject to arrest and prosecution.

Though some authorities in Denver have downplayed the vote’s impact, activists see a key symbolic victory. The Boulder, Colo. group Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation is planning on using the same tactics used in Denver to convince residents of other cities that marijuana should be legalized.

“We provided a new argument that selective prohibition of marijuana forces more people to use alcohol,” said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER.

Tvert said SAFER persuaded residents to vote for the initiative by comparing marijuana to alcohol, which they consider a more harmful substance.

The group told citizens that by prohibiting marijuana, the city was effectively turning more people toward alcohol usage. Tvert said the message resonated with voters, and that the organization is now focusing on spreading their campaign across the country.

“It makes no sense to push people towards using a more harmful substance,” Tvert said. “We clearly have an imbalance in our public policies.”

As they move forward, SAFER – which began at the University of Colorado – will focus its campaign on college campuses, conveying the same argument used to promote the legalization campaign in Denver.

“We hope to get students organized throughout the country,” he said.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy refers to Denver as a “high intensity drug trafficking area.” The Denver local government has employed the “Life Skills Training” program and the “Social Norms Project” in public schools to prevent drug usage by youths.

According to data collected by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more than 50 percent of males arrested in Denver in 2003 had used marijuana in the previous year.

Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, called Denver’s vote remarkable, but added that “it is equally remarkable that the Office of National Drug Control Policy chose to ignore the vote completely.”

Mirken said that Denver is a unique city in that it had its own laws governing marijuana usage. This enabled local residents to vote for or against the legalization of marijuana usage, he said.

Other cities have hosted similar campaigns in recent years to legalize marijuana or make penalties for usage less harsh, including Oakland, Calif. and Seattle. Mirken said he believes there will be an ongoing political debate in Denver, but hopes the city will eventually listen to the residents’ vote.

Tvert also said he hopes the measure will be taken seriously. He said that while many local government officials and the press have made jokes about the vote, it remains a serious issue.

“We are trying to have a serious debate about the issue,” Tvert said. “We got people listening so clearly it’s successful.”

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