On Monday, the Denver City Council reversed its previous position and voted to revoke an ordinance prohibiting marijuana use on private property if it's in public view. The law was mostly aimed at keeping residents from smoking pot, which is legal in Colorado, in their front yards or on their porches. Assuming the Council does not change its mind again, Denver residents and their guests will now be able to smoke pot in their front yards and on their front porches, even if people on the sidewalk and the street can see them.
The law's fate was decided by one vote, as the Denver Post reports. After initially approving the ban, Councilman Albus Brooks changed his position over Thanksgiving weekend at the behest of city officials (like the police chief, who said enforcing such a ban would be a waste of resources and could lead to over-policing).
A government that insists on determining where on her own property a person can engage in legal behavior does sound a little ridiculous. Not the porch and not the yard, but what about in front of an open window? Am I breaking the law only if someone on public property can see me? What if my neighbor can see me from her kitchen window?
But it's not fair to accuse the Denver City Council of being pedantic for the fun of it. The U.S. Justice Department's decision to let Colorado and Washington experiment with legal marijuana hinges on both states mitigating teen use and other "public health" consequences. That's a pretty tall order, particularly since the legality of alcohol and cigarettes aren't contingent on a state or city's ability to keep teens from smoking, nor drunks from driving. Nevertheless, the City Council is working under the assumption that it's legislatively possible to legalize pot without completely normalizing its use. Which is why some city leaders, such as Denver Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, believe "it will be far easier to loosen things than taking those floodgates and try to close them sometime later."
But does letting Denverites smoke in their front yards really amount to opening a floodgate? It depends on who you ask.
Consider an incident that happened in Seattle earlier this month: A man leaving a Seahawks game saw another man smoking pot on the sidewalk as kids and families walked nearby. So the man complains to two nearby police officers that the pot-smoker is violating the city's ordinance against smoking marijuana in public, but the cops respond that they aren't allowed to do anything. Outraged, the man shares his story with local media outlets, and the story blows up. It turns out the officers were actually empowered to do something, and in fact chose not to as an act of de-policing, but the incident nevertheless showcased that city's anxiety about the normalization of marijuana use.
It's not all that surprising that liberal, pot-friendly cities like Seattle and Denver are anxious about what full-on legalization will say to children and teens. A dramatic increase in teen marijuana use would be bad, plain and simple. And yet it would also be bad to have tasked the Denver Police Department with enforcing the council's now-overturned ban. Doing so would've required neighbors to act as snitches, strained city resources, and introduced violence into non-violent situations. The fact that public marijuana use was briefly considered by the council to be worse than the consequences of banning it is a reminder that one reason we fear normalizing marijuana is because we've long since normalized the drug war.
Top image: Pot smokers celebrate at Denver's Civic Center park on 4/20. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)