The Next Best Thing

When Denver voters abruptly passed an initiative to legalize marijuana in 2005, city officials were quick to assure residents and members of the media that the drug would not be sanctioned, and that state law would be summoned to convict any individual found in violation.

Fast forward two years. Amid a rise in marijuana arrests and a unsympathetic City Council, legalization proponents have decided to work for the next best thing: a ballot proposal to make possession the lowest enforcement priority.

This time backers are determined to bulk up their previous victory, despite changes in the way Denver approves ballot measures. Advocacy group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), fresh off of a failed campaign to legalize marijuana throughout the state, will be sponsoring the new initiative.

The organization tasted success when Denver voted by 54 percent to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years and older in November 2005. The state-wide campaign also netted approximately 55 percent of voters in the Mile High City, hinting at an urban population that may be willing to pass another measure dealing with legalization. 

“If the City Council and the mayor are unwilling to stand up to the voters of the city they’ve got to stand up for themselves,” says Mason Tvert, the recognizable spokesperson of SAFER Colorado.

One hurdle for supporters could be the city’s confusing approval process to get measures on the ballot, which is inadvertently hazy do to voters approving the replacement of the Denver Election Commission with an elected clerk and recorder.

“There’s no more election commission. Last time around it was all through the election commission. This time it’s through the city clerk,” Tvert says, noting the importance of time when campaigning. “You couldn’t start any later than we have right now, but yet they haven’t even released the initiative rules and how to do this stuff.”

SAFER still has to present ballot language before city officials on Monday, then petitions have to be approved and signatures collected.

The proposal would also create an eleven-member Marijuana Policy Review Panel to investigate and report implementation of the new ordinance. Along with the panel, members of law enforcement would  be required to report all marijuana arrests and prosecutions to the members-which could raise questions about financial implications.

But despite the details, the last few years have marked Denver as a battleground for marijuana legalization, and there’s no sign of it ending.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at