BROOMFIELD — Exactly five years ago, a beaming Jason Lauve rolled out of the Boulder County Justice Center in his wheelchair, balancing on his lap an assortment of marijuana that had just been returned to him by sheriff’s deputies.
A jury minutes earlier had acquitted Lauve — a victim of a debilitating back injury after a snowboarder plowed into him five years earlier — of possessing excessive amounts of medical marijuana.
In the years since Lauve left the courthouse a vindicated man Aug. 6, 2009, the marijuana landscape in Colorado has shifted dramatically — most notably with the legalization of recreational pot in 2012. But many look back on Lauve’s trial as a defining moment in the still-evolving world of cannabis use and regulation.
“That case got us in part to where we are today,” said Rob Corry, the Denver marijuana advocacy attorney who defended Lauve.
The 2006 acquittal of Gunnison resident Ryan Margenau on felony charges of possessing pot without a medical marijuana card preceded Lauve’s trial. But Corry said the latter case was far higher-profile and had greater policy impacts.
“It was significant because it caused a lot of prosecutors to ask why they were taking these cases and wasting taxpayer money,” he said.
One of the prosecutors who began to loudly question the wisdom of pot prosecutions was Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, whose office had charged Lauve.
“It was a pivotal case for me,” Garnett said. “It pointed out what juries thought about marijuana possession — which wasn’t much.”
He said the case also made it plain to him that the possession limits spelled out in Amendment 20, the medical marijuana initiative passed by Colorado voters in 2000, couldn’t be enforced effectively given the defense’s successful argument at trial that the law allowed a patient to have as much pot as was “medically necessary.”
Police had found 34 ounces of marijuana and more than 30 pot plants — far more than the 2 ounces of usable pot and six plants permitted by the statute — in Lauve’s Louisville home.
In September 2009, Garnett announced that marijuana possession cases would become the lowest priority prosecution for his office. The next month, he dismissed charges against a Nederland medical marijuana patient who faced felony charges for having 50 pot plants.
Garnett said his office hasn’t prosecuted a minor pot possession case since Lauve was acquitted.
“A lot of things contributed to getting where we are today, and clearly the Lauve case was a part of that,” he said.
Lauve, who now lives in Broomfield, likened his case to the first few pieces of mortar being chiseled out of the Berlin Wall before it fell in 1989.
“It was a hole in the armor (of marijuana law enforcement),” he said. “The two sides could now communicate; it was no longer polar opposites on this.”
After he was found not guilty, Lauve said he began receiving calls from patients, attorneys and dispensary owners throughout Colorado.
“They said ‘Thank you for standing up,'” said Lauve, who still uses forearm crutches to get around. “‘How did you do it? Can I see your case?’ I felt empowered. It showed me we can defend our rights.”
Elisa Kappelmann, owner of Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana in Colorado Springs, said Lauve inspired her to fight when she was charged with two felonies after police raided her grow house in 2010.
Police said Kappelmann was growing far more plants than state law allowed. But a jury in 2012 found her not guilty after Corry, her attorney, argued that the “medically necessary” element in the state’s medical marijuana law applied to the case.
“The Lauve case was a breakthrough because before that if you were going to court, you were going to jail,” Kappelmann said. “The stigma is so great with marijuana that law enforcement thinks it can run over you. Jason came down and encouraged me to fight.”
Lauve, who went on to publish a medical marijuana magazine and now consults for the burgeoning industrial hemp industry, said much work remains to be done in the field of cannabis legalization. There are still district attorneys taking on medical marijuana patients, he said, and the industry struggles under the dual conflict of being legal statewide yet illicit at the federal level.
But those challenges, he said, don’t diminish the accomplishments made in the pot legalization movement since he nearly collapsed in a Boulder courtroom five years ago after hearing his not guilty verdict.
“This has happened faster, better and bigger than I could have imagined,” Lauve said.
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/abuvthefold