BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Voters in this Rocky Mountain resort town will decide next week whether to legalize pot for all adults at a time when the movement to allow medical marijuana is gaining steam around the country.
A measure before Breckenridge voters in Tuesday's municipal election would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana along with bongs, pipes and other pot paraphernalia. Supporters of the measure say it would inch the whole state closer to full legalization.
Other cities around the country have taken similar action in recent years, including a measure in Denver that decriminalized possession.
Local ordinances to allow some recreational marijuana use have passed in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities, though in all those places the law is considered symbolic because it conflicts with state and federal laws. Alaska allows possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana in one's home, and advocates in California want to ask voters in next year's election to legalize pot.
Advocates say the Breckenridge proposal goes further than others because it allows paraphernalia as well. "I don't think there's anywhere else in the country that has legalized paraphernalia," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.
As in most states, drug paraphernalia possession in Colorado is considered a petty offense. Though "head shops" selling bongs and pipes are common in Colorado, the wares are ostensibly for smoking tobacco. Paraphernalia charges are usually only filed along with possession charges. Both are misdemeanors punishable by a $100 fine and court fees.
The penalties aren't serious, but about 100 people a year in Breckenridge are cited for possession of either marijuana or paraphernalia, often both. Supporters of the effort say it's not right to leave small-time pot smokers with a criminal record.
"We don't want to spend our tax dollars prosecuting this, so we're saying, let's just stop it," said Sean McAllister, a Breckenridge attorney who proposed the ordinance. Supporters include a member of the town council and the Summit Daily News, which printed an editorial backing the idea.
Its prospects are strong. In 2006, a statewide ballot measure to make marijuana possession legal failed 59 percent to 41 percent. But among Breckenridge voters it won almost 3-to-1.
McAllister's attempt to put the legalization measure on ballots needed 495 signatures. He collected more than 1,500.
Breckenridge Police Chief Rick Holman has opposed the idea, saying the measure just sets up a conflict between town and state law. Pot possession would still be a state crime, but Breckenridge police officers would have to take users to the Summit County Sheriff's Department to be cited if the measure passes.
Critics also point out that Colorado already allows marijuana for medicinal use – though debate rages because pot shops aren't regulated by the state and are proliferating.
More than 10,000 people in Colorado are cleared to use medical marijuana, and more than 100 dispensaries have opened.
This week, Summit County imposed a 120-day moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas so it can figure out how to regulate them. At least six other Colorado counties and towns are considering or have moratoriums for that reason.
Breckenridge had a moratorium, but lifted it this month as the town released zoning guidelines to ban dispensaries from setting up shop near schools or in part of the tourist-friendly downtown.
The debate is playing out around the country as states struggle to figure out how to regulate and enforce medical marijuana laws. The federal government complicated matters earlier this month when the Justice Department told federal prosecutors that targeting medical marijuana users who comply with state laws was not a good use of their time.
Several Breckenridge residents heartily backed the local marijuana effort.
"People think it's a waste of time for the police to be prosecuting these people," said Elisabeth Lawrence, 30. Smoking pot, she said, is "not the worst thing in the world to be doing."
Nancy Skaj, a clerk at a Breckenridge grocery store, said the measure could be a boon for ski tourists who don't have clearance for medical marijuana. "With all the injuries people get skiing up here, instead of popping pills, they should just be doing this. It's a lot more natural," she said.
Backers have one main worry – the measure's timing.
Turnout for off-year municipal elections is often extremely light among Breckenridge's 3,300 or so voters. Election Day falls during the quiet weeks before the ski business picks up.
McAllister, who has two interns waving signs and passing out flyers in support of the measure, says he's confident the effort will send at least a message about what he calls the public's changing attitude toward marijuana.
"Prohibition ended by localities and states saying they didn't want it anymore. And that's exactly how marijuana prohibition is going to end – from the ground up," he said.
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