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Monday, November 12, 2007

Pot Law Stirring Up Trouble

Hayley Jaqua has a big problem.

Jaqua is a 25-year-old full-time student at Metropolitan State College of Denver and an anthropology major who also works part time at a trendy restaurant on the 16th Street Mall.

In September, Jaqua was ticketed for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

I've spoken to Jaqua only once, so I dare not vouch for the incorruptibility of her soul. But from what I can tell, we have a pleasant and bright person here - a woman whose only brush with the law before this incident was an improperly licensed dog in 2003.

Jaqua's petty offense carries with it a maximum fine of $100. Not a huge deal, to be sure. But the long-term consequences of this transgression could be life-changing.

According to the Higher Education Act's aid elimination penalty provision - passed through Congress without any debate in 1998 - a student must check off a box on financial aid applications, revealing any drug offenses. A check could mean no college aid.

There is no box for "child molestation" or "arson" or "racketeering" or ... well, you get the point.

As Jaqua's education relies on financial aid, pleading guilty and paying a trivial marijuana-possession citation is not an uncomplicated matter.

Marijuana-legalization advocates claim that more than 200,000 students have lost out on financial aid for this reason since 1998.

Since I'm reflexively skeptical of any advocate's claims, let's cut the number by a customary 50 percent. Which still leaves us with 100,000 too many.

"It's a lot to take on the government," Jaqua tells me. "If you're in class, it's tough to go to court hearings and conferences. It's taking time away from concentrating on graduating. But I guess I am happy to do it. Because it's a good cause. Though I definitely wish it never happened to me to begin with."

Typically, I'd say stop being a crybaby; the law is the law. But in the case of Denver, the law isn't exactly the law.

Denverites' will ignored

In case anyone has forgotten, Denver residents - the same residents who just passed I-100 last week, making marijuana the city's lowest enforcement priority, by a 57 percent majority - passed a 2005 SAFER initiative that made the possession of small amounts of marijuana legal in the city.

"It's still illegal in the city of Denver, because Denver's in Colorado," Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey once explained. And thanks for the geography lesson.

In other words, Denver's DA isn't interested in what Denverites have to say on the issue.

Now, some people out there - those who don't pay close attention to the workings of the city or who hit their bongs a bit too regularly - might actually be under the impression that Denver has decided to follow the will of citizens.

You are sorely mistaken. So don't do it.

"I guess I was under an impression that the law said I could carry," Jaqua explains. "I wasn't aware that state law could override county law.

"And that's partly why I'm fighting this. What kick-started this was the fact that I would lose my financial aid over something so small. But there are laws that say I can carry 1 ounce of pot legally in Denver. So I should be able to do it."

OK. I'm not not exactly convinced that anyone is confused.

But there is another level to this case, and hundreds of others, that also makes little sense.

Jaqua's lawyer, Brian Vicente, is busy filing motions. He's asked for a six-person jury

trial. He tells me he recently received a toxicology report from the city on the confiscated marijuana.

The toxicology report alone surely costs more than the entire $100 fine.

What in this equation makes anyone believe these sorts of prosecutions are worthwhile?

Are fewer people smoking marijuana in Denver because of a $100 ticket?

Is the city gaining anything from moving forward with prosecutions that cost taxpayers - taxpayers who have already plainly stated they don't want to prosecute - thousands of dollars for every case?

And why do we have initiatives in Denver if city officials simply ignore them anyway?

You know, sometimes you have to wonder who exactly is smoking ganja around here.

The Denver Post


Anonymous said...

I am applaued at the numbers that are being eliminated from the eduational playing field due to the herbal smoke. I am a believer that those individuals who are denied an education because of a small amount of herbal smoke, should take it to the highest supreme court to have a right to get financial aid by eliminating the question of "drugs" on the application. How about those on legal prescriptions that students use?

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