The number of people jailed for marijuana crimes is down 65 percent in Larimer County one year after Coloradans voted to legalize it. A pro-legalization campaign in the 2012 election advocated to “regulate marijuana like alcohol,” and that largely appears to be happening. Pot remains illegal under federal law, and the sale of nonmedical marijuana continues to be a crime until the first stores begin opening in early 2014. Even so, fewer pot dealers are getting busted.
“It’s more of a licensing issue than it is a criminal violation, from where we’re seeing it,” said Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith. “Trying to prosecute any of the violations that weren’t massive has not been a good use of resources.” He said his investigative unit — the one that made headlines the past several years for busting marijuana grows across the county — will often find marijuana at the scenes of other drug crimes, but resources and priorities have otherwise shifted mostly away from marijuana.
“The citizens have made it more legal,” he said. Of people booked into the Larimer County Jail by all agencies, including the sheriff’s office, the number facing marijuana-related crimes decreased from about 268 in 2012 to 95 since Amendment 64 passed. When only medical marijuana was legal to possess, Smith said officers could confirm through paperwork whether somebody was breaking the law. Amendment 64 limits the amounts adults 21 and older can possess (an ounce) and grow (six plants). But Smith said any given case could be open to interpretation; for example, someone could be growing 18 plants but say they were acting for their roommates.
Offenses by people younger than 21 continue to be enforced, he said. The ages of people recently booked on marijuana crimes appear to support that. Fort Collins Police Capt. Don Vagge said social norms appear to be changing. Officers breaking up a loud house party will see people inside passing joints. “In years past, at a loud party complaint, they would hide or dispose of that in some way,” he said. Law enforcers say they expect marijuana to become more widely used, leading to more marijuana DUIs. Defense attorneys say they’re noticing a recent uptick in marijuana DUI cases and are expecting more.
“Marijuana does less harm than alcohol, and making marijuana illegal while alcohol was legal didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Fort Collins defense lawyer Brad Allin. “However, we are adding another drug that can be legally used, and that will increase the number of law violations. … It will increase the number of (people who use marijuana) and get behind a wheel.”
Colorado this year made it illegal to drive on more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient. But because that number varies widely depending on the person, defense attorneys are allowed to argue in court that the driver wasn’t intoxicated. “I’ve been a defense attorney almost 15 years, and I’ve never seen as many DUI marijuana cases,” said Denver-based marijuana lawyer Sean McAllister, who represents the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Colorado.
Marijuana, serious crimes
Vagge said there continue to be crimes targeting marijuana. Around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, five men robbed a Fort Collins home on the 1100 block of South Bryan Avenue. “One suspect held the occupants at gunpoint while the others searched the house,” Vagge said in an email. “They stole cellphones, marijuana pipes and some marijuana. The cellphones were discarded outside, and other items of value were not taken, leading us to believe that the marijuana was the target.”
No arrests had been made by this story’s deadline.
“We had some of that before (Amendment 64),” Vagge said. “There’s nothing that I would say is a dramatic increase of what we’ve had before.” He said he’s been working with other parts of city government on coming up with rules to regulate retail marijuana stores, which are banned until March in Fort Collins city limits. Two stores are expected to open sooner in unincorporated Larimer County east of Fort Collins.
Asked whether retail marijuana could drive out the black market, Vagge responded: “We don’t know yet. The theory makes sense to me. … There isn’t a large (black) market for alcohol sales.” Meanwhile, despite the sharp decrease in marijuana-related bookings at the jail, the number of total jail bookings appears on track this year to be just as high as the last. “It certainly hasn’t done anything to reduce crime,” Smith said.
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