Marijuana decriminalization for people under 21 a happy surprise, advocate says

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Last night, Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks succeeded in getting a majority of his colleagues to support a bill decriminalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for those under age 21.

Brooks stresses that the measure shouldn't be interpreted as a sanction for young people to smoke weed -- a position with which anti-pot activists can be expected to take issue prior to next Monday's final vote. In the meantime, though, one reformer is happily surprised at the passage.

"This is an issue they didn't have to take up at this time, but they chose to anyway," says marijuana attorney Warren Edson. "And it could have a positive effect on kids in this situation in the future, because it will minimize the impact on their lives due to a possession-of-marijuana charge."

Brooks made a similar point in a statement shared on his Facebook page following the council meeting. "Tonight was an important night for leveling the playing field for youth in Denver, although it in no way makes it legal for them to possess or consume marijuana," he wrote, adding, "It's important that we work hard to create systems that allow for justice and reconciliation. Tonight's vote made sure that youth aren't forced to live into adulthood with the mistakes they made as youth."

As Brooks points out, the bill, seen below in its entirety, isn't a license for teens to smoke weed. Indeed, it imposes fines of $150 for a first offense, $500 for second violation and $999 after number three for those between the ages of eighteen and 21 -- adults, yet not covered by the provisions of Amendment 64, which legalized the use and possession of marijuana only for those age 21 and over. However, it states specifically that the offense will be regarded as "non-criminal" in nature.

For those under age eighteen, a line in the bill adds that "any fine imposed may be supplanted by treatment as required by the court."

Given the recent struggle in the council over allowing people to smoke on their front porches (an amendment that eventually supplanted a controversial proposal dubbed a "sniff test"), Edson wasn't expecting the decriminalization bill to sail through quite so easily, "and with all the stuff on their plate, it's nice that they put this front and center and got it done. These offenses can have a real impact on a child's life in the future -- which is why there's been such an outcry for it over the years."

Not that Edson is thrilled with all the council's recent marijuana decisions, including limiting home pot grows to twelve plants. "If the concern is people doing grows improperly and starting fires, or variations on that theme, I'm not sure putting that plant limit on will have any effect," he says. "Often some of the worst grows you see are the ones by beginning guys who have two plants and are using an orange extension cable. I wish these debates would shift to how we can have proper inspections to make sure this is done right instead of putting down a blanket plant count. Supposing there are four people in the house. Supposing there's a medical marijuana patient who needs more than that number of plants to deal with his ailment. What are those people supposed to do?"

Yet even though "we're probably going to kick back at some point and not be entirely pleased with everything that's been passed regulation-wise over the last twelve months," Edson concedes that "it's pretty amazing this stuff has basically come together from scratch. There were people alive when alcohol prohibition ended who remembered what it was like before prohibition began, but there aren't many people alive now who remember when marijuana prohibition didn't exist. There's no formula or laws from pre-1935 that we can use to create this -- so I have to give them some credit for getting all of this stuff done."

Here's the 21-and-under decriminalization bill.

Denver City Council Decriminalization of Marijuana Under 21

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Pot smoking on front porches okayed by Denver City Council, school-related proposal dies."

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