Denver Marijuana Arrests Highlight Racial Disparity a Second Time

While blacks make up approximately 10 percent of Denver’s population, they accounted for 32 percent of adult misdemeanor marijuana arrests in 2007, according to data from the city’s police department.

The percentage has increased since 2006, when data showed that the same demographic made up 30 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests.
Members with Citizens for a Safer Denver, a local organization that advocates for pot legalization, filed an open records request with the Denver Police Department’s Civil Liability Bureau to obtain the data.

Overall, misdemeanor marijuana arrests for adults 22 years and older have increased by approximately 50 percent since 2004, jumping about 18 percent in 2006, according to the police data. Information regarding 21-year-old offenders was not made available. There were 1,168 arrests in 2005, 1,347 in 2006, and 1,587 in 2007.

Legalization supporters wouldn’t be focusing on the numbers so much if it wasn’t for the fact that Denver voters passed an initiative legalizing personal possession of up to an ounce of the drug for adults 21 years and older in 2005, and another measure to make such cases a “lowest law enforcement priority” for police in 2007.

The latter initiative also created the Denver Marijuana Policy Review Panel, a 10-member committee that is required to meet quarterly to examine and report on the effects of the new law.

City officials have consistently held the position that pot is still illegal under state law, which is why police continue to cite violators, but legalization proponents and defense attorneys continue to criticize the Police Department and City Attorney’s office for violating what they see as the will of the voters.

At the second meeting of the marijuana review panel on Wednesday, members continued their struggle to compile more complete data on marijuana citations and prosecutions, which do not entail arrests.

Sgt. Ernie Martinez, a panel member and Denver police officer, said that mining such data may be very “staff intensive” and instead suggested that the panel sample specific cases to get a better idea of the conditions surrounding arrests and citations.

But Mason Tvert, director of Safer Denver and committee member, disagreed with Martinez and wanted more specific data detailing how many adults were actually charged with private marijuana possession in Denver.

Either way, panel chair Brian Vicente, a criminal defense attorney and director of medical marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado, highlighted the need for getting more specific data.

“There are two different lines of reasoning, but my interest is getting numbers,” he said.

Misdemeanor pot offenses in Denver are characterized as possession of 4 ounces or less of marijuana.

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