Don't Legalize Marijuana — Decriminalize It, Colorado Springs Mayor Tells Arizona

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization — but even he doesn't support Arizona's felony-possession law.

Suthers — also a former Colorado Attorney General — came to Arizona this week to denounce Prop 205 on behalf of the opposition group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. The proposition, which will appear on November's ballot, would legalize personal amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older, and set up a system of cannabis retail shops. Suthers' city is one of several in Colorado where marijuana doesn't get a green light: The city opted out of the state's recreational program and now has only medical-marijuana dispensaries.

"I would recommend you did what Colorado did before legalization. They made possession of less than an ounce a petty offense." — Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.

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On Tuesday morning, he and officials including ARDP's co-chair, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, gathered in front of the Fallen Officers Memorial at the state Department of Public Safety for a news conference that focused on the supposed ills Colorado has experienced since passing its own legalization law in 2012.

Arguing forcefully against Prop 205, Suthers went over a list of problems in Colorado he claims are related to marijuana legalization, like an alleged rise in kids using cannabis,  more homeless people, and an increase in pot-related DUIs.

However, when informed by New Times that in Arizona, possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony, Suthers — a Republican in a state that has above-average adult use marijuana — started sounding like a member of NORML.

"I would recommend you did what Colorado did before legalization," Suthers told reporters. "They made possession of less than an ounce a petty offense."

"You would support that?" another reporter asked.

"Yes," he replied.

His answer shows one difficulty in determining how Prop 205 might work in Arizona compared to how legalization has worked in Colorado. Arizona's neighboring state didn't reduce the number of felony arrests for simple possession of marijuana after its 2012 recreational-marijuana vote — because there weren't any to reduce. In Arizona, by contrast, felony arrests for marijuana made up nearly 6 percent of all arrests in 2015.

DPS statistics show that 12,987 adults were arrested in 2015 on marijuana charges, though the weight of the seized marijuana isn't listed. Prop 205 would make an ounce of marijuana legal under state law for adults 21 and older, (it would still be illegal under federal law), and between one and 2.5 ounces a non-arrestable petty offense with a $300 fine.

Besides Polk, joining Suthers at the memorial were Sergeant Jim Gerhardt of the North Metro Task Force in Colorado, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Jimmy Chavez of the Arizona State Troopers Association, and John Ortolano of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police.

Gerhardt continued Suthers' theme, painting Colorado as a madhouse of drug-seeking homeless people, stoned drivers and pot-fueled crime. In Denver, the crime rate is up 4 percent, and it's up 6 percent statewide, he claimed. Confusingly, he suggested the crime problem was because of marijuana legalization, yet cautioned reporters that it was difficult to draw conclusions from the crime rate.

Experts say they have no idea why crime is up Colorado, but that marijuana-related crime makes up less than 1 percent of all crime in Colorado in any given year, according to a February article in the Denver Post

After the main presentation, Suthers faced an openly critical press corps when he began answering questions. Suthers' talking points about Colorado "suffering a host of negative consequences" because of legalization were similar to those made by Polk and ARDP over the last year, and reporters were armed with facts that refuted some of what he said.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services noted that for all the talk of negative consequences, Coloradans aren't trying to repeal their legalization law.

"It seems like you're the ones out of step in the law-enforcement community, but the rank-and-file Coloradans are quite happy with their plan," Fischer said.

Suthers' answer: Coloradans are "uninformed" and "don't pay attention" to the problems he mentioned.

A new poll out this week that was sponsored by the Public Policy Polling firm and the national Marijuana Policy Project revealed that only 36 percent of Coloradans want the law repealed compared to 51 percent who don't want it repealed, and that 47 percent believe the law is good for the state compared to 39 percent who think it's bad.

Suthers hinted at the pro-Democratic leanings of the PPP, saying it was put out by people on "the other side of the debate. It's a really bad poll."

"I am not saying that it wouldn't pass tomorrow," he added, "because the average citizen doesn't know a lot of the problems we're talking about today."

Those problems don't include the Colorado economy, he acknowledged, which has been booming in the last few years. Tourism figures are up, the state's unemployment rate is one of the nation's lowest, and its overall gross domestic product is higher than the national average. In 2015, demand for homes was four times the new supply of homes.

Echoing a suggestion by Polk and other members of ARDP, Suthers said that Arizonans should give the Colorado experiment more time before voting on their own legalization measure. It's only been about three years, but Arizonans should wait at least five, he recommended. Suthers was then asked whether he'd support something like Prop 205 in Arizona if Coloradans were still eager to keep legalization even five years out. He said no.

Of course, neither Suthers nor the others mentioned that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper famously reversed course on legalization this year, saying he was convinced the problems have been minimal. Recalling a previous statement in which he said he'd get rid of the 2012 law if he could wave a magic wand, Hickenlooper said in May that he might not wave the wand now.

"It’s beginning to look like it might work," Hickenlooper said of Colorado's legalization experiment at a public-policy panel in Los Angeles.

Reporters also pushed back on the subject of youth consumption of marijuana, which Suthers said was 74 percent higher than the national average. Dennis Welch of Channel 3 News (KTVK-TV) referenced a study published in June by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that showed teen use of marijuana has apparently declined slightly since 2012.

Suthers countered that the numbers didn't grow after 2012 because teens had already ramped up their use with the state's "liberalized" medical-marijuana program.

His theory has an upside for Arizona's Prop 205, actually: If the same pattern holds true in Arizona — which has seen a decrease in youth marijuana use since passing its own medical-marijuana law in 2010 — then there won't be a rise in kids using pot if Prop 205 passes.

Suthers and Gerhardt are expected to appear this evening at a $10,000-a-plate "discussion" of these issues — without the inconvenient facts and follow-up questions by reporters — at the Sanctuary on Camelback in Paradise Valley.

Governor Doug Ducey, who's helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the ARDP, is the event's special guest.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.