EAGLE COUNTY — Local law enforcement wasn’t sure what to expect after Colorado voters legalized pot, but most agencies have been pleasantly surprised a year later.
In November 2012, the passage of Amendment 64 made it legal for people older than 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use. Starting Jan. 1 of this year, the sale of retail marijuana also became legal, with the closest retail shop in Breckenridge.
The result for law enforcement is a decrease in tickets written and arrests made related to marijuana infractions. The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office recorded nine summons or arrests in 2013, compared to 50 in 2012. The Avon Police Department had 15 narcotics-related arrests, which included seven marijuana related arrests in 2013. That’s a huge drop from 153 arrests in 2012 and 101 arrests in 2011, although Avon Police Chief Bob Ticer points out that many of those arrests were at the SnowBall music festival, which is no longer held in Avon. Before the festival, an average year saw between 36-50 narcotics arrests, with roughly half of those relating to pot, he said.
“There’s a different threshold now (for the legal limit), and subsequently we had a lot less arrests,” Ticer said.
Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy said he has instructed his officers to simply enforce the law where they come across an infraction. There haven’t been too many problems with public smoking, either, he said.
“I guess by chance our officers weren’t in contact with that many people who were under the influence,” he said, although he added that the availability of retail marijuana might change things. “It’s going to be interesting what this year brings. There are a lot of us still waiting to see what direction the whole system goes in the future. I’ve directed my guys that if they have the legal amount on them, we’re not going to do anything. If they have more, we cite them for what they have that’s not legal. “
The penalty for being in possession of more than one ounce is akin to a bad speeding ticket — in Vail, for example, it’s up to a $100 fine and appearance in court, unless you plead guilty.
Not much change in community
Avon’s Ticer said that some people expected Amendment 64 to create a visible change in the community, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
“We’re seeing a lot less arrests, but not a significant change in our community,” he said. “There were people thinking there’d be a lot more people smoking in public, but in 2013 we had four tickets for consumption in public.”
Like other law enforcement officials, he’s not sure what the advent of retail pot will bring, but he said the department’s focus will be on educating the public about where they can use marijuana.
“It’s been very difficult to predict either way. We’ve been monitoring the law change, but I haven’t had expectations either way. I think (enforcement) will be more and more evolving as retail marijuana goes into effect around the state. We’re trying to educate the public on when you can use it. It’s similar to what you can do drinking alcohol.”
Hoy said he doubts that the pot laws will dramatically change the county.
“I’m not sure if we’ll see a big explosion of pot use in the community,” he said. “Some think it will change the culture of the county. I just don’t know if we’re going to see it. The people who come here to ski or golf will still come here. I don’t think people will come just because we have pot available. It’s still pretty expensive with the 25 percent sales tax. My guess is those people will go to the Front Range.”
Vail deals with public use
The one notable exception to the trend has been Vail. The town’s police haven’t seen a drop in marijuana-related crimes during the past year. Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said that whether or not someone is charged is based on officer discretion, but police have dealt with a fair number of infractions at public events such as the Hot Summer Nights concerts.
In 2013, Vail police wrote 15 tickets for public display or consumption and two felony charges of intent to distribute. In 2012, there were also 15 tickets for public display or consumption and three for intent to distribute. In the past six months, officers said they’ve noticed more out-of-towners publicly using marijuana — perhaps because they aren’t clear on the laws, Henninger said
State laws on where you can use marijuana put law enforcement in a difficult situation, he said.
“The laws that are passed at the state level are difficult to interpret,” he said.
“You can’t smoke in restaurants, hotels or public places,” Henninger said. “If you’re smoking on the front lawn, from my perspective you’re in violation. If you’re on the back deck and someone else can see you probably are. If your yard is fenced, you’re probably OK.
“That’s one of my thoughts as to why we shouldn’t have it here, because I think if we allow people to sell it, we should also allow them to use it.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org