Colorado cannabis time capsule, 1929: Legislators make sale and cultivation a felony

In doing research for our feature on the history of cannabis in Colorado, we came across some amazing old news stories from local papers about marijuana arrests and more. We'll share the most memorable of them in our quasi-regular feature, Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule. Today's item, from March 27, 1929: "Amended Bill Hits Traffic in Marijuana."

The Colorado legislature had passed laws making marijuana a misdemeanor in 1917, with fines up to $100 and a possible month in the pokey. But with what was seen as a growing menace on their hands, Colorado lawmakers again took up criminalizing marijuana possession in 1929 -- writing laws that would pretty much stick with the state to this day with a few minor alterations to penalties along the way.

At the recommendation of a former state senator and U.S. Marshal Richard Callen, 1929's Senate Bill 409 made a second offense for selling and growing cannabis punishable by one to five years in the state pen. This story, from the March 27, 1929 Rocky Mountain News offered an update on the bill after its second reading.

For reasons unknown, the reporters didn't go to the bill's four sponsors for quotes, but instead turned to then-Denver city chaplain Val Higgens. Because clearly there wasn't anyone better to talk to about marijuana than a government-paid priest. Higgens presumed that because Colorado made the penalties tougher, the marijuana trade would just dry up.

"If a prison term faces growers and sellers of this narcotic weed, they are going to give up its use faster than heretofore," he said, no doubt with a smug chuckle at the end for using the word "heretofore". "It is a dangerous drug, especially since it becomes available to children and forms a habit so quickly." He finished by saying that smoking only a few joints would get someone hooked.

And if there was any doubt as to who the bill was really targeting, the Rocky spelled it out with a quote from Higgens. "Such legislation is necessary. The use of marijuana came into the state with the Mexicans migrating here for agricultural work," he said. "Its use is growing because of the increasing number of Mexicans and the ease with which most of them have been able to avoid penalties." The article then pointed out those seasonal migrant workers from Mexico had increased from 4,500 in 1928 to an expected 6,500 in 1929.

The Colorado Legislature wasn't done with just cultivation and sales, though. Apparently things got a little heated when lawmakers discussed a related bill that would make public intoxication on drugs or drink illegal in unincorporated parts of the state. At one point, a Republican senator proposed an amendment that would prevent someone from being charged for the same offense twice. That didn't go over well with the Democrats.

"No objection from this bill should come from the Republican majority," said Senator Carl Burke, likely with a booming voice while wagging a finger at the opposite side of the room. "Heretofore the Republicans have drunk all the whisky and the Democrats have assumed all the responsibility. This bill would put responsibility on everybody. "

Both bills were eventually passed into law. Today, cultivation of under six plants is legal by state law, but growing between seven and thirty plants is still a felony, with up to six years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Personal sales are still illegal as well, with up to twelve years in prison and $500,000 fine.

More from our Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule archive: "Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule, 1937: 'School Children Buy Drug'" and "Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule, 1937: 'A growing social menace.'"

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes