NEDERLAND, Colo. (Reuters) - Surrounded by tie-dyed T-shirts and marijuana pipes at her gift shop in the Colorado mountain town of Nederland, veteran pot activist Kathleen Chippi seems an unlikely candidate to have voted no when the state legalized recreational weed in 2012.
She says the measure was "fake" legalization because marijuana remains prohibited by federal law, and users, including medicinal pot patients and their caregiver, still risk having their lives ruined by prosecution and jail time.
But in what appears to be a largely symbolic move of her own, Chippi is now leading an effort to have Nederland, population about 1,500, declared the world's first "sanctuary" for therapeutic and spiritual consumers of the drug.
Based on the "sanctuary city" laws that dozens of U.S. cities used to shield Central and Southern American refugees from deportation in the 1980s, the proposal is likely to go to residents for a vote in the fall.
"Just like with immigration policy, we need a place where people can be protected," said Chippi, speaking in her shop near the foot of the snow-capped Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Protecting the spiritual use of cannabis is crucial for the 46-year-old, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Janis Joplin. Several years ago she founded the Closer to the Heart Cannabis Ministry, which she says has more than 300 members who believe marijuana is the Biblical Tree of Life, and that its use is a sacrament.
She opened Nederland's first medical pot dispensary in 2009, and eventually had more than 2,400 patients, she said.
But Chippi shut its doors the following year, angered by regulations passed by Colorado lawmakers that she viewed as a "violation of the constitutional rights of sick people." She has since sued the state six times seeking changes in the rules and greater clarity for users and caregiver. At the same time, she began planning a "sanctuary" ordinance.
The proposal, drafted by Denver attorney Danyel Joffe, would prohibit the town from using funds to enforce any marijuana law affecting therapeutic or spiritual uses of cannabis, as long as its use harmed no one else.
"I wanted to help them because it's my belief that cannabis is not an evil weed. There are people who use it for spiritual purposes," Joffe said. "Yes, some people abuse it, but that doesn't mean other people should be harmed as a result."
Nederland, which began life in the 1850s as a trading post where European settlers could do business with local Ute Indians, later turned into a mining town. In more recent decades it became a draw for hippies and those attracted to its quirky, easy-going ambience.
This month the town hosted its annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival, celebrating an effort by a Norwegian immigrant to preserve his grandfather's corpse. The event features music, beer and events such as coffin races, a polar plunge and frozen salmon tossing.
Town Administrator Alisha Reis said the Nederland attorney's office does not have an opinion on Chippi's proposed ordinance yet because she has not formally submitted it.
"We are planning to process this initiative just like any other," Reis told Reuters.
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman