Colorado Springs mayor urges Arizonans not to legalize marijuana

Colorado Springs mayor urges Arizonans not to legalize marijuana

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Tuesday that Arizona should not follow the lead of his state in legalizing recreational marijuana eve though he admitted most voters in Colorado want to keep the 2012 law. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Tuesday that Arizona should not follow the lead of his state in legalizing recreational marijuana eve though he admitted most voters in Colorado want to keep the 2012 law. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

The mayor of Colorado’s second-largest city is urging Arizonans not to legalize recreational use of marijuana even as he admits voters in his state want to keep their nearly 4-year-old law.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said the law approved by voters there has had dire consequences, including increased teen use and more criminal activity. And he said there is probably less support for the measure than when it was approved in 2012 by a margin of 54.8 percent to 45.1 percent.

But not that much less.

“Do I think that the citizens of Colorado would repeal it tomorrow? Probably not,” he said.

Suthers said Proposition 64 remains popular in his home state because voters are uninformed.

“People in law enforcement, people running a city, things like that, they’re going to see the neighborhood problems, they’re going to see the increase in DUIs, they’re going to see the school problems and things like that,” he said. “A lot of the average citizens are not going to see all that.”

Suthers and a police officer from Colorado were brought to Arizona by foes of Proposition 205 in a bid to convince voters here that that state’s 2012 law has created new problems.

“It clearly will make our roads more dangerous and Prop 205 will clearly endanger Arizona’s children,” said Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk. She chairs Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the group working to defeat the initiative.

“This is clearly not guesswork,” Polk continued. “Colorado passed a similar initiative for recreational marijuana in the year 2012 and is now suffering a whole host of negative consequences.”

But Suthers, under questioning, acknowledged that not all the claims can be linked to that law.

For example, he is not disputing statistics from the Colorado health department that show teen use of marijuana has not increased since recreational use became legal after the 2012 vote. Instead, he said, the big jump actually came after the 2006 vote to legalize medical marijuana — laws similar to what Arizona already has.

Anyway, Suthers said if Arizona voters are not convinced that the law voters in his state adopted was a mistake, they should not follow suit, at least not now. He said Arizona should wait until the Colorado law has been in effect for five full years — meaning two years from now — to see whether they still believe recreational use of marijuana is desirable.

That’s also the message from Jim Gerhardt, an officer with the Thornton Police Department and vice president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. He said legalizing recreational use did not reduce crime as had been advertised and urged voters here to “take a hard look at what’s happened in Colorado.

“There’s absolutely no reason to rush into this,” Gerhardt said. He said it’s easy for voters to adopt laws allowing recreational use but “it’s very, very difficult to undo what we’ve done.”

As bad as they say the Colorado law is, Polk and other foes have pointed out there are some substantial differences between the law there and what voters here are being asked to approve, differences they say make the Arizona proposal even worse.

For example, the Colorado law makes the presence of five nanograms of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, a “permissible inference” for jurors to conclude a motorist is impaired.

Proposition 205 does say driving while impaired remains illegal. But there is no similar language, meaning prosecutors would have to prove, on a case-by-case basis, that an individual was actually impaired while behind the wheel.

In Colorado, cities can refuse to allow marijuana dispensaries. There is no such option in the Arizona measure.

Proposition 205 would allow for home delivery of marijuana.

And the Arizona Constitution sharply restricts the ability of lawmakers to make changes in the initiative if there are unanticipated problems. Only amendments that “further the purpose” of the voter-approved law are permitted, and only with a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate; more radical changes have to go back to the ballot.

John Ortolano, president of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said the Colorado experience shows there are reasons for concerns about public safety if Arizona adopts a similar law.

He cited a study published earlier this year questioning 865 residents of Colorado and Washington who said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days. More than 43 percent said they had driven under the influence of marijuana within the prior years — and almost 24 percent said they had operated a motor vehicle within one hour of using marijuana in the past month.

“There is no doubt that in this state that if Proposition 205 passes that more citizens in our state are going to be killed by people that are driving under the influence of drugs,” Ortolano said.

While Suthers said Tuesday that Arizonans should reject Proposition 205, he did offer up an alternative: Decriminalize small amounts of the drug for personal use, as Colorado did before it went the next step of legalizing it. He said that would allow individuals to have up to an ounce of marijuana with the penalty being no more than a fine.

That proposal, though, drew a decidedly negative reaction from Polk.

“Our campaign does not support anything that results in more kids using pot,” she said. Polk said marijuana use by Colorado teens is 74 percent higher than the national average, as compared with 15 percent in Arizona.

“Our goal is to decrease that rate, not increase it by removing deterrent measure.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, a foe of Proposition 205, also distanced himself from what Suthers was proposing.

He said having marijuana possession as a felony allows prosecutors to offer offenders deferred prosecution, allowing them to wipe the record clean if they complete programs like drug treatment “and intervene before someone’s drug use manifests in other criminal behavior.”

“If you make it a petty offense, there is no opportunity to require treatment and no consequence for repeat violations,” Montgomery said.