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Colo. town debates all but ignoring marijuana law

Ballot measure would assign lowest priority

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, home to moneyed hippies, artists, and nature buffs, Telluride is a live-and-let-live kind of town.

A sign assures visitors that they are in a ''civil liberties safe zone."

The 15-mph speed limit, which applies in most of the town, is largely enforced by placing a police hat on the tip of a stick and perching it in the driver's seat of a squad car.

In the center of town is the Freebox, a collection of wooden bins where people swap bootleg concert tapes, alpine gear, and more, regulated only by the principles of karma.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that although Telluride cannot legalize marijuana, it may do the next closest thing: officially declare possession of pot for personal use to be the town's ''lowest law enforcement priority."

In August, the Town Council voted 6 to 0 to put the issue on the Nov. 1 ballot. Residents will be asked whether to instruct town marshals, the local law enforcement, to make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana possession their lowest priority. The proposal applies only to the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by people 18 or older.

Several cities already have what proponents term sensible marijuana ordinances, most notably Seattle, where voters in 2003 approved an initiative to make the possession of small amounts of marijuana law enforcement's lowest priority.

Still, Telluride's vote will be closely watched, specialists said, because it is the first marijuana ballot proposal since the Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal government could enforce its zero-tolerance policy on marijuana, even in the 10 states that permit its use for medical purposes. Colorado is among those states; the others are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the fact that the Supreme Court did not strike down the state laws seemed to suggest ''concern by justices about thwarting local control, local values."

People who favor relaxing marijuana laws -- many of whom believe the government wastes public resources by targeting low-level drug offenders -- hope Telluride sets a national example, St. Pierre said.

''The great disconnect at the policy level is here in Washington, D.C.," he said. ''Congress is frozen in a sort of reefer madness that states and localities are not."

But Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, said the agenda behind local initiatives ''clearly is the legalization of drugs."

''They have made it very clear that they are going to keep pushing," Fay said.

Her argument has gained more traction here recently than it might have a few years ago. A famously fun-loving town with a year-round population of about 2,000 and an in-season population close to 10,000, Telluride has become a ritzy resort in recent years and is peppered with log cabin mansions and swanky restaurants that require reservations, even if you can still wear flip-flops or the T-shirt you hiked in all day.

But the town's newer arrivals have tempered its freewheeling ways.

''Telluride is really in transition," Chief Marshal Mary Heller said.

J. Michael Dorsey, who served in several high-profile federal government posts before he retired, moved to town a year ago. He was the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing during the Reagan administration and sat on the national drug policy board, and he has become a leading critic of the Telluride proposal.

Dorsey said the proposal was misguided, partly because voters should not establish law enforcement priorities. He also objected to a second portion of the initiative, which would declare that Telluride would approve if Colorado decided to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana use.

That would ''tell people in town that we think marijuana should be legal, and it will tell people who visit that we think marijuana should be legal," he said. ''I think that's the wrong message to give to families in town, and I think it's the wrong message to give to families who are coming here."

To supporters, the proposal reflects the ethos here. Much of the town seems to celebrate the fact that the word ''high" can refer both to its lung-clenching altitude -- it sits 8,750 feet above sea level -- and to the heady smoke that wafts intermittently through town.

One bustling restaurant is called Baked in Telluride; a popular T-shirt reads, ''Honey, I think the whole town is high."

''In Telluride, we tend to respect an adult's right to make decisions for themselves, within reason," said resident Ernest Eich, 30, a leading backer of the proposal. ''I think this has a very good chance."

Eich said that with fewer marshals in town -- three of the department's 10 positions are vacant -- those on patrol should pursue crimes that people find more worrisome than marijuana possession.

Heller, the chief marshal, said the initiative wouldn't have much practical impact. Marijuana possession, she said, typically is charged only as a secondary offense, such as when an officer pulls someone over on suspicion of drunken driving and happens to find a bag of pot.

Even then it is treated under Colorado law as a petty offense, similar to a traffic citation.

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