Hard Data Is A Determining Factor For Denver Marijuana Panel

The Denver’s Marijuana Policy Review Panel’s first meeting Monday was a brainstorming session on how to implement a voter-passed ordinance that mandates that private adult pot possession be considered the lowest law enforcement priority. But the panel will have to obtain more information on marijuana offenses in the Mile High City before it can complete its mission.The first great hurdle for the group will be finding hard data on marijuana arrests and citations in Denver, a task that could carry unknown financial costs. City law enforcement officials will need to see what information, if any, law enforcement departments keep, and panel members will then determine what additional information may need to be obtained. Because of a lack of data, one tactic the panel might use to decrease marijuana offenses in a more timely manner would be to direct the City Attorney’s Office to stop prosecuting adults busted for less than an ounce of pot, except in extreme circumstances.

Denver voters passed the legalization ordinance in November by 57 percent. The legislation called for Mayor John Hickenlooper to appoint a panel to meet at least quarterly to study and report on the effects of the new law.

The marijuana study group is composed of 10 individuals: one at-large city council representative; a member of the City Attorney’s Office; two legalization proponents; three criminal defense lawyers; one Denver Police officer; one drug addiction specialist; and a woman with the Denver Metro Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, a panel that examines domestic violence issues in Denver. (The Denver District Attorney’s Office was set to participate on the panel but declined to do so.)

By April 2008, the panel is required to establish reporting criteria for the Denver Police Department and City Attorney’s Office regarding marijuana arrests and prosecutions. The ordinance also calls for the police department to report all pot citations and prosecution cases to the panel on a semi-annual basis, along with the same information for alcohol-related offenses.

Members of the panel will be discussing available data though e-mail until they meet again.

In 2005, Denver voted to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years and older by 54 percent. A similar statewide campaign failed in 2006, but Denver voters still approved it with approximately 55 percent.

The most recent data on pot arrests in the city was released by the Denver Police Department in April 2007, and it showed that the city arrested 1,912 people for all non-felony marijuana arrests (which includes possession of up to eight ounces of the drug) in 2004, more than 2,000 in 2005, and a total of 2,446 in 2007.

The police department data also showed that while African-Americans make up approximately 10 percent of Denver’s population, the group made up 30 percent of the total reported arrests. Whites made up 35 percent.

Increasing arrest rates (arrests in 2006 had risen almost 20 percent when compared with the average for the past three years) motivated pro-legalization organization Safer Colorado to submit the ordinance creating the study group.

It’s unknown at this time when the panel will meet again.

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 erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.