Jan 172006
Authors: Vimal Patel regionalcollegian.com

After the passage of I-100 in Denver, pot legalization proponents knew they had to take their battle statewide.

"Denver officials don't have the guts to stand up for the people who put them in office," said Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER, the group behind the voter-approved pot legalization measure, referring to the continued effort by Denver law enforcement to prosecute citizens under state statutes for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

So they decided that now was the time to attack the heart of the beast: state law.

SAFER is pushing an initiative that would change state law to legalize up to an ounce of pot for adults, allowing individual cities to determine the plant's legality.

If voters approve a statewide measure, then pot smoking would be legal under Colorado law unless a city ordinance specifically states otherwise. Many cities don't have any such ordinances, including Fort Collins, said Rita Davis, spokeswoman for Fort Collins Police Services.

But city officials, through voters, would be able to add such laws, Tvert said.

SAFER gained international attention after its November win in Denver, but the group started on CSU and other Colorado campuses. SAFER felt the state's higher-learning institutions are at the forefront of the national alcohol problem – one they believe could be alleviated if drinkers smoked pot instead.

This controversial lesser-of-two-evils argument apparently persuaded CSU students to approve a SAFER-sponsored referendum last year calling for lesser penalties for possession of pot.

The symbolic, non-binding vote, approved 56 to 44 percent, also passed at the University of Colorado-Boulder by an even greater margin.

But if Coloradans vote on a statewide measure, it won't be the nation's only one. Nevada voters will decide on a statewide legalization measure in November.

The Nevada measure would not only legalize pot, but also set up rules about regulation and taxation, effectively treating the drug like alcohol.

Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the organization behind the Nevada measure, said there is no doubt Americans' attitude toward legalizing pot is shifting.

He cited a Gallup poll that found 55 percent of those surveyed said possession of small amounts of marijuana should not be treated as a criminal offense, whereas two years prior, the number was 46 percent.

The public opinion poll also found that 36 percent of respondents said pot should be legalized, the highest rate ever on that question, Mirken said. In 1969, only 12 percent supported legalization.

"We think having the dialogue, having the conversation, has value to society even if (the Nevada ballot measure) doesn't win," he added. But, "we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it had a decent chance."

For the Colorado measure to make it onto the November ballot, SAFER will first have to get a ballot title. After that, they'll have to collect 67,829 signatures, a number calculated by taking 5 percent of all votes cast in the last election for secretary of state.

If all goes as planned, Tvert said, the group will start collecting signatures by late February.

But SAFER may find a tougher challenge statewide than they did in Denver, where I-100 passed 53 to 47 percent in November, as the rest of the state is generally more conservative.

But Tvert said he isn't deterred and has faith in the state's voters.

"This is a state known for its independence and people respecting local rights," Tvert said. "We believe that if we educate people about the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol, then we'll win."

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