Vail Valley Voices: DA candidate’s take on pot
Ryan Summerlin February 1, 2012
As a candidate for district attorney, I must have a position on the regulation or legalization of marijuana in order to respond to many voters’ legitimate concerns over this issue.
A district attorney is responsible for the enforcement of all laws. However, there is wide latitude in how vigorously they are enforced, as well as wide perimeters for recommending appropriate sentences for people who stand convicted.
The current medical-marijuana system has flaws and benefits for patients experiencing real benefit to its use. The harder question is in prescribing a course, improving upon the current system of regulations -should we throw our hands in the air and surrender any form of marijuana regulation, should we return to a system where no marijuana possession is legal or should we adopt a compromise between these extremes?
I believe that unless legalization occurs, law enforcement and prosecutors should consider unlawful marijuana possession and regulated distribution a low priority, and persons breaking the laws should be subjected to a drug evaluation, paid for by the person who enters the criminal-justice system, to determine whether or not they are marijuana addicts. Those identified as such should be monitored for usage and given an opportunity to be treated, rather than aggressively prosecuted and punished. Those who were evaluated not addicted or at risk would be required to pay the monetary cost associated with their criminal-justice contact and have their cases dismissed.
Marijuana users coming into the criminal-justice system for illegal possession, who are evaluated to be addicted and then fail to complete an appropriate rehabilitation regimen, would suffer convictions that, under current Colorado law, would remain on their records for at least 10 years.
Local police, courts and prosecutors continue to be challenged by marijuana’s regulation and the possibility that marijuana use and distribution could become legal.
The state of Colorado in 2000, through a voter-approved initiative, began to license the use and sale of medical marijuana with a special class distinguished from otherwise illegal drug users to grow, sell, possess and get high on marijuana, still leaving people without a medical-marijuana card at risk of arrest and prosecution.
Muddying the legal waters, however, permitted users who light up are not exclusively protected by state statutes but must contend with the federal government’s laws that classify marijuana use, possession and distribution as illegal.
As distinguished from Colorado law, federal regulations identify marijuana as a substance without any medicinal benefit, setting up a tug-o-war with a state’s ability to permit a usage that the U.S. government criminalizes.
Though confusing, this dichotomy is consistent with the general rule that each governmental layer can regulate the same person’s actions differently, reaching opposing conclusions upon what is legal. These inconsistencies are not confined to drug laws but appear elsewhere in our legal fabric.
Both federal and state authorities punish the possession of any amount of marijuana, but Colorado exempts from prosecution anybody who is a holder of a marijuana card where a physician has certified the user having an active, debilitating medical condition of “cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS or a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition that produces cachexia (wasting syndrome), severe nausea, seizures, muscle spasms or severe pain.”
While the defined maladies of qualifying medical conditions are limited, the maladies present in the current medical-marijuana system are unlimited.
Recent statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health indicate the following:
• There are 88,872 marijuana cardholders.
• Sixty-eight percent of those are men.
• The average age of all patients is 42.
• “Severe pain” accounts for 94 percent of all reported conditions.
As John Suthers, Colorado attorney general, stated at a recent community forum in Eagle: “That is precisely the demographic profile of recreational drug users in the state.”
While that assessment may be true, the demographic may be skewed toward youthful males because they are more likely to be receptive to treating conditions with marijuana, as opposed to the elderly, who would be reluctant to accept such a therapy.
To the extent that is lighting up without a legitimate medical need, the legitimacy of the current state system of regulation is suspect.
Some current medical-marijuana card applicants and physicians who approve their applications are likely falsifying medical conditions, enabling patients’ marijuana use.
Otherwise law-abiding people who may be deceptive with their doctors in order to remain law-abiding are an inconsistency, which deserves to be changed because laws encouraging ordinary citizens to cheat are inherently flawed. Laws do not exist for their own purposes but are credible when they reflect the citizenry subjected to them.
People who are taking initial steps to obtain a medical-marijuana license, or whose license may have recently expired, are violating state and federal law if they are found in possession of marijuana. The prosecution of those people can have serious consequences by making otherwise clean criminal records marked, which frequently results in consequences such as losing a job or job opportunity when an employer discovers a criminal conviction.
Generally speaking, corporate employers will pass over applicants who have any criminal conviction in a tight job market such as we are now experiencing, where intense competition exists for every position.
Also, people who may be on probation or parole because of a conviction for a non-drug offense, but who have procured a valid marijuana license, are often prevented from continuing to use their marijuana card while under court supervision, although this is left to the discretion of an individual judge overseeing the convicted person.
Current tensions between state law, which permits marijuana use and possession, and federal law, which prevents its transportation or possession in threshold amounts, amid threats to revoke a physician’s drug-prescribing license required by Food and Drug Administration licenses to practice, are palpable.
Several marijuana-legalization initiatives are being shaped for Colorado voters. One of the proposed new laws would do away with the shenanigans of obtaining a physician’s approval for “medical” marijuana for users 21 or older and disconnect from lawful marijuana possession proving a medical need and physician approval. The current system of marijuana dispensaries would be maintained, with taxing up to 15 percent, and revenues would be earmarked to support schools.
While such a change would remedy a system and eliminate any need for users to game to their doctors, there will continue to be people who are marijuana addicts, maybe even more people who are marijuana addicts with increased availability, which has significant societal costs, as does any addiction.
I believe that the tradeoff between potential increased addictions, however, does not outweigh continuing criminalization of unlicensed marijuana possession.
Bruce Brown is a licensed attorney and practices law in Idaho Springs. He can be reached at email@example.com. He is a candidate for district attorney, website brucebrownforda.com.