It came as something of a surprise to read that Breckenridge residents had overwhelmingly voted on Nov. 3 to legalize the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, as well as associated paraphernalia.
It was a surprise because I used to work there for a few months in 1977-78, when I edited the Summit County Journal. Back then, you would have had to work at it to find that marijuana was illegal.
The only pot arrests I recall were "stupidity busts." Someone forgot to remove the plants from a condo's window sill before calling to report a burglary, or left a bag in plain sight on the front seat when pulled over. Indeed, I distinctly remember two guys passing a joint in broad daylight while they changed a flat tire right outside the sheriff's office window.
But even if a municipality can set priorities for law enforcement (Denver voters made it the "lowest priority" in 2005), a town can't actually legalize marijuana, since the plant also comes under state and federal law. Colorado voters legalized medical marijuana with Amendment 20 in 2000, but that had little effect until recently.
Although the Bush administration offered lip service to federalism and respecting states, Bush told federal drug agents to ignore tolerant state marijuana laws. Thus a pot dispensary that was legal under California or Colorado law was still a target for the federal DEA.
That has changed. President Barack Obama has told federal agents to ignore cannabis operations that are legal under state law, and thus the recent growth in Colorado dispensaries.
Colorado's law, and associated regulations, are so vague that our attorney general, state board of health, legislators and various courts constantly come up with new proposals and interpretations; anything I write might be obsolete 10 minutes later.
It should be noted, however, that the vagueness has inspired at least one Colorado sheriff, Fred Wegener in Park County, to back off on raids of pot plantations. He said he has no way to know in advance who's a licensed caregiver who can grow up to six plants per patient. In four raids this fall, three turned out to be legal operations.
He worried that misunderstandings could lead to gunplay. "What if accidentally somebody should see us coming in and grab a gun?" he said. "I don't want that . . . or them shooting one of my officers over something like this."
That sounds sensible, and the state and various municipalities could see some improvement in revenues with sales taxes from medical marijuana — which they can collect, according to our attorney general.
But this raises some questions. If prescription drugs are exempt from sales tax, why should prescribed marijuana be any different? And, for that matter, if I'm prescribed marijuana, why should I have to register? When my dentist prescribed codeine, a Schedule II controlled opiate, I just went to the pharmacy and filled the prescription, no state registration required.
Back when it was on the Colorado ballot, opponents of medical marijuana said it was really just the first tumble down the slippery slope toward full legalization. I certainly hope so, for there must be better things to do with tax money than continue this stupid war against a plant that grows just about everywhere.
As for Breckenridge, its recent pot vote inspired a Texas woman to write to the local paper: "Do you think we are bringing our kids to Breckenridge if it is going to attract a bunch of potheads on skis?" she asked, concluding with, "Goodbye from us — we'll be skiing elsewhere."
Somebody needs to break the news to her, and to others who have threatened to boycott Breckenridge: For many years before that recent municipal election they deplore, there were "potheads on skis" in Breckenridge. If they missed that, maybe they were under the influence of some other controlled substance.
By Ed Quillen
November 19, 2009