Colorado district attorney evolves on marijuana laws

When he started as DA, Stan Garnett hadn't given pot much thought

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett says he doesn\\\'t think pot legilization will affect his job very much.
Leland Rucker | Boulder Weekly

When he started his tenure as district attorney of the 20th Judicial District of Colorado in 2009, Stan Garnett had not given marijuana a lot of thought.


“The legislature decides what the laws are, and my job is to enforce them,” Garnett said during a recent interview. “When I came into office, marijuana was illegal except in certain medical situations, and I inherited a couple of felony cases that my predecessor had filed that were prosecutions for possession of marijuana.”

This was at the same time that the Obama administration first indicated it wouldn’t interfere with states that legalized medical marijuana, which resulted in a stampede of dispensaries opening in Colorado, which had legalized medical use with the passage of Amendment 20 in 2000 but hadn’t codified rules and regulations for dispensary operations.

“We went to trial, cause I’m a big one for going to trial, because I think it’s good to get the public and press involved,” says Garnett.

“I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, and almost immediately juries came back with a not-guilty verdict. Some jurors actually came down afterwards and asked me why I was wasting their time.”

So, after studying the issue, in September of 2009 his office announced that it would make marijuana its lowest priority. “Our juries are very pro law-and-order,” Garnett said, “and they care a lot about making Boulder County safe. We get great convictions on tough cases. But it was clear to me that they weren’t going to convict on marijuana possession. And that kind of thrust me into the statewide debate about how dispensaries fit into Amendment 20. How do we create a legal framework for them?” Garnett became involved in what became House

Bill 1284, which created rules and regulations for medical marijuana growing, processing and distribution. “We all shared the feeling that you need to keep it away from kids,” Garnett says. “But can we regulate its distribution, just like other things that are controversial, like pornography or alcohol? But the idea of prohibiting it criminally was unwise, I thought, because it just doesn’t work. The criminal justice system only works when the vast majority of the community agrees that what should be against the law is against the law.”

Will legalization make his job easier or more difficult?

“I don’t think it’s gonna change much, to be honest,” he says. “Again, the issue is, can we control the distribution of marijuana in a way that’s consistent with community values? The regulatory schemes I’ve seen in Boulder and Denver are going to be pretty effective at controlling the distribution, so I don’t think it’s going to change much.”

He says the black market will be treated like any other illegal expansion of an otherwise legal business.

“I do think, and this is important, that you have to keep things in perspective. When marijuana was totally illegal, we had nothing but the black market. And it was everywhere. So there will still be a black market, but I actually think it’s easier to control the black market in communities where it’s legalized, because if people are able to buy something legally, they are more likely to do it that way instead of buying from the guy on the street corner. The bottom line is most people want to comply with the law.”

Garnett is serious about keeping intoxicated drivers off our roads, and he thinks the legislature-approved, controversial blood-level test is a good start.

“It’s a relatively low limit, and it’s not a per se like you have with alcohol,” he says. “With marijuana, it’s a presumption that the jury gets instructed on, but you can take the stand and say, ‘I can take my marijuana.’ We’ve developed these per se laws with alcohol. We’re not at that point yet with marijuana, and we may never be.”

Will legalization make it easier for teenagers to get marijuana?

“I go back and forth on this. When you think of a dispensary, between the security, the IDs that are required and everything else, the idea that those are going to be selling to kids, that’s not going to happen.”

So where are teenagers getting it?

“A lot of them are getting it from their parents, but I think they’ve always been getting it from their parents,” Garnett says. “It’s easier for parents to get marijuana, so in a sense, it will be easier for the kids, though I have not seen evidence of that, and I’m on the governor’s school safety task force.”

Garnett says he hasn’t seen any studies that show significant increases in marijuana use in teenagers after legalization.

“In fact, there are some that are indicating the opposite,” he explains. “Kids being what they are, they’ll always want to experiment with sex, alcohol and drugs, and there will always be some marijuana use. But we see assaults, sex assaults, that are tied to drinking that we don’t see with marijuana.”

He doesn’t support the marijuana-as-a-gateway-to-harder-drugs argument.

“I think alcohol is much more a gateway drug,” Garnett says. “The psychology of drug use is such that I don’t know to what extent there are gateway drugs. I haven’t seen studies that draw a direct line between marijuana use and cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine, which really are very destructive substances.

But from what I know, and I say this having used none of them, including marijuana, whatever goes on inside a person’s mind deciding to move to a harder drug, I don’t know that has a lot to do with using marijuana.”

Send tips, suggestions and criticisms to