Those Rocky Mountains are getting higher. Two municipalities — Denver, Colorado, and the small town of Hailey, Idaho — passed pro-marijuana measures on election day this week, joining a growing number of liberal localities that are reducing or removing penalities on using pot. It's part of a slowly evolving populist rehabilitation of the drug. San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Monica in California, along with Missoula, Montana, and Seattle, Washington, have previously passed laws that give the lowest priority to enforcing existing marijuana laws.
Federal regulations, which supercede local ordinances, continue to prescribe heavy penalties — even in some cases death — for major dealers of illegal drugs, including marijuana. The federal penalty for possession of even a miniscule amount is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and $1,000. Penalties are higher with cultivation, sale and crossing state lines. However, magistrates generally use state and local laws as sentencing guidelines — unless there is federal intervention, which doesn't occur in every drug case because they would increase court time and costs.
Not every attempt at liberalizing the laws has been successful. Last year, the pro-marijuana lobby tried to pass legalization laws in Nevada and Colorado; both failed. But this week's results in Denver heartened pro-pot activists: 57% of voters in the city approved "lowest law enforcement priority." Coming after a 2005 vote removing all penalties for possessing small amounts, Denver joins Alaska to become only the second place in the U.S. offering a free ride to users caught with less than an ounce. Denver's local and political culture has been amenable to such legal re-orientations. Last summer, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and four of the 13-member city council told a local newspaper they had smoked pot in the past, while another six councilmen refused to answer and only three said no.
The Denver measure was pushed by a single activist: Mason Tvert, who organized SAFER, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation, on the University of Colorado and Colorado State University campuses, and now runs it from his Denver home. He was funded in part by the Marijuana Policy Project, which received $3 million this year from Peter Lewis, the heir of the Progressive Insurance Companies, who helps fellow billionaire George Soros support liberal causes.