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Caught between legalization and zero tolerance

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With the exception of medical marijuana, it is illegal to possess any amount of any material deemed to be an illegal drug in 48 of the 50 states. When nearly two-thirds of Colorado voters changed that law as it concerns recreational marijuana in Colorado, surrounding states, Utah in particular, may have seen a potential for some extra cash.

About two years ago, three young women were returning to Denver after vacationing for a week in southern Utah. The vehicle they were driving had Colorado license plates. The driver said they were pulled over by a highway patrolman for apparently and inadvertently crossing the white line on the shoulder side of a two lane highway. There was no other traffic and under other circumstances it probably would have gone unnoticed.

The officer asked the driver to take roadside sobriety tests. There was no evidence she was driving while impaired and the driver attests that no drugs or alcohol were involved.

No citation was given for either driving impaired or driving under the influence which tends to corroborate her story. However, the officer, making verbal note of the plates on the car, demanded to know if the driver or any of the passengers were in possession of marijuana.

“We don’t agree with Colorado’s permissiveness,” he said. He then told the driver it would go badly for her if she didn’t own up and he later found weed. He said he would bring in dogs to see.

The driver was flustered and confused. Having learned to respect authority and to be truthful, she said she did have a small amount of grass in her backpack. That, of course, gave the highway patrolman the authority to conduct a search, which he did. He went through the entire contents of the luggage of all three people in the car. Two of the girls had a small amount of marijuana.

I don’t mean to defend a violation of the law. Utah has zero tolerance for possession of prohibited substances. Two of the young women were in violation of that law. My problem is the approach the officer took to uncover these “criminals.”

Both women are gainfully employed in Denver. Neither had any previous legal problems. Had they remained silent, the only way the cop could have uncovered what is not an infraction in Colorado would have been through an illegal search. He avoided that with tactics that, to my mind, are unacceptable.

Both women were eventually put on probation in Colorado and fined $1,200 each. Contesting any part of this would have been difficult under normal circumstances, but as one of the women learned as she investigated their options, the court facility where matters like these are dealt with is in St. George, Utah. It operates only during the summer.

By the time she completed her research, the court was closed for the year. Further, getting to St. George from Denver is no simple matter. The cities are several hundred miles apart.

Going there would have required time off and extensive travel, so the women decided to submit to the indignities of probation, the mandatory urine checks at unspecified times to be determined by a required daily phone call and the $1,200 fines.

If a random urine test were ordered, they had to pay for that, too. It took one of the women more than a year to pay off her fine because while she does have a job, her wage is modest.

About the time this was happening, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department announced that it would not enforce federal law regarding possession of marijuana in Colorado, at least for the time being, to see how this citizen-approved matter works out. Ironic, to say the least.

The women believe they were targeted both because of the Colorado plates and because they were women. The officer used his “authority” and size to intimidate and frighten them.

Had the driver been under the influence at the time, I would look at this differently. The way this situation unfolded makes it appear to be an effort to enrich Utah. The only good that came of this went to the Utah general fund.

I don’t expect any state neighboring Colorado to ignore drug trafficking or clear and public abuse of their state laws. At the same time, I think it is flagrant misuse of authority to act the way this patrolman behaved.

Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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