Why you should care
It’s legal to smoke pot here, but God forbid you should throw a snowball.
It’s 4:20 pm on April 20, and some 75,000 Coloradoans are collectively ripping a hit and puffing into the sky, celebrating the annual weed holiday by creating a cloud of smoke that hovers over this Denver public park like fireworks.
Meanwhile, I’m wondering if I’m going to be arrested for lending a vacuum to a neighbor, mutilating a stone or driving my black rental car on a Sunday.
Colorado is known for some weird laws. And it’s not just Denver. In Boulder, it’s illegal to place a couch on your porch, let your llamas graze on public grass or roll boulders onto city property (sorry, Sisyphus). Terrible ramifications apparently await those who allow dandelions to grow in Pueblo or have the audacity to kiss a woman in her sleep in Logan County. In Alamosa, throwing “missiles” at cars is illegal, while in Severance, tossing snowballs could get you tossed behind bars — until a local boy mounted a campaign to get the rule changed last year, that is.
The history behind strange laws, I discovered, was perhaps stranger than the laws themselves.
My editor, who’s Canadian, and thus perhaps less accustomed to strange American customs, gave me the task of finding out if these laws truly exist, and whether you can get booked for transgressing them. The history behind strange laws, I discovered, was perhaps stranger than the laws themselves.
My investigation started with calls to separate fact from fiction. One oft-repeated and incorrect fact is that Louisville, Colorado, doesn’t allow residents to own chickens, but does permit up to three turkeys. “This is an urban legend that isn’t true,” says Felicity Selvoski, a city planner, who points to the code: Turns out, you can have up to six hens (but no more than three ducks, geese or turkeys total) in most parts of Louisville. As far as Denver’s vacuum-lending regulations? Another myth that “seems to have a life of its own on the internet,” says Marley Bordovsky, director of Prosecution and Code Enforcement for the city of Denver. The prohibition of black cars on the Lord’s day? Also untrue, according to Jayson Luber, a Denver7 traffic anchor who wrote about the subject in 2017 after “many, many, many hours of research.”
The other aforementioned laws do have some basis in reality, but in many cases, the websites that post these “dumb laws” are overplaying their hand. Dandelions in Pueblo are allowed, but, under a weed-curbing ordinance, are meant to be kept under 10 inches. The “missiles” of Alamosa are likely just a catch-all term for any sort of thrown object, which makes sense because you don’t want kids throwing stuff at moving vehicles.
At this point in my research, I started to understand the game. Rather innocuous laws, or rather, laws with a specific intention in a specific time and place, get overstated by those seeking absurdity — or simply made up entirely. To test this theory, I reached out to Kelly Owens, a soon-to-be graduate of the Marquette University Law School who published an essay on the creation of these laws.
The internet, naturally, has only helped exacerbate that hearsay process.
It’s true, some of these are hoaxes. But others were real, Owens says, the result of so-called “blue laws” that restricted certain “immoral” behavior on holy days (in Colorado, you still aren’t allowed to have a car dealership open on Sunday, for example). Others were necessary because of contextual realities. In California, it’s illegal to eat a frog if it dies in a frog-jumping contest — a nod to an 80-year-old mining town tradition. “This took place before there were modern-day sanitation laws,” Owens says, so it probably made sense to let locals know not to swallow a toad. In Alabama, it’s illegal to train bears to wrestle: Apparently, bear-versus-man wrestling was a popular 19th-century sport. “They stay on the books a lot of times because it can just cost a lot of time and money to take something off,” Owens says. “For the most part, there is no way of enforcing a lot of these anyway.”
Where does our obsession with strange laws (and our desire to propagate them) come from, anyway? “The weird laws have always been fascinating to people,” says Colton Kruse, the lead digital content producer at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which, believe it or not, is often charged with fact-checking these crazy claims. Its 100-year-old daily cartoon has often spotlighted these strange laws. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when companies like Snapple and Popsicle started putting trivia on their products, that the rumors grew really rampant.
“Our company was born and bred for trivia. We have researchers and teams devoted to it,” Kruse says. “Once you get to popsicle stick manufacturers just looking for facts to put on their sticks, that’s where you lost the quality. You end up with a lot of these fake laws getting traction.” The internet, naturally, has only helped exacerbate that hearsay process.
So there you have it: It’s probably safe for you to lend your Hoover. But, just to be safe, I’ll be resisting the urge to mutilate rocks or roll boulders in Colorado any time soon.