4:52pm

Tue September 18, 2012
Politics

Amendment 64: To Legalize Pot or Not...

  • Bente Birkeland reporting from the state capitol

This November Colorado will be one of three states deciding whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Supporters of Amendment 64 have raised more than a million dollars for their campaign. There’s also broad opposition to the measure.

Editor's Note: This story is part of a three part series on Amendment 64 covering polling, funding and the legalization question.

Colorado voters approved the use of medical marijuana back in 2000. Now they’re being asked to approve its recreational use. This is actually the second time the legalization question has appeared on the ballot, a similar measure failed six years ago.

In addition to legalizing small amounts of marijuana for those over the age of 21, Amendment 64 would also require state lawmakers to pass an excise tax on marijuana, and allow for the creation of retail establishments.

“Adults who are 21 and older should be able to make the choice to use marijuana responsibly if that’s what they prefer,” said Mason Tvert, the co-director of the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

“It’s objectively less harmful than alcohol and there’s really no logical reason why we should be punishing them for making that choice.”

Possession of marijuana is against both state and federal law and Tvert argues that teens can already access the drug easier than tobacco and alcohol. He says legalization would reduce crime by bringing what’s an underground industry into the light.

“By keeping marijuana in an underground market we’re forcing people to get marijuana from illegal sources that might have other illegal products. Should we control and regulate this product, know whose buying and using it, or do we want it to be entirely uncontrolled? The black market won’t go away.”

Calvina Fay is the head of the national nonprofit, Save our Society from Drugs based in St. Petersburg Florida. Her group is funding efforts to defeat Amendment 64 and similar initiatives in Oregon and Washington State.

“There is a ton of research to show that marijuana is linked to mental illnesses, is linked to respiratory problems, linked to cancer,” Fay said. “For anybody to claim it’s a safe drug, first of all is a big fat lie.”

Even though the the state Democratic Party supports the amendment, a growing number of groups, towns and high-profile individuals – including Governor John Hickenlooper – have taken a stance against the effort.

“The folks that I know in public safety and especially around youth addictions and social services are very concerned about this and feel that even just legalizing small amounts of marijuana opens the door to much greater usage among young people,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s almost like telling them it’s just fine.”

While opposed – the Governor does say it’s unfair to burden someone with a felony record for a minor marijuana transgression. That’s why the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar backs the Amendment.

Executive Director Dan Schoen says current marijuana laws unfairly target certain populations.

“If you look at the arrest profile it has a significant minority skew and the differential in policing amongst minorities is of particular concern to us,” said Schoen.

Calvina Fay though says passage of amendment 64 would cause problems that advocates aren’t even bringing up – such as impacting businesses and hiring – since marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug federally.

“It will put them in a position of being in direct conflict with federal law. Employers wouldn’t be able to certify to drug free workforces. If that were to go through, employees could legally pursue an employer and it puts the employer in the middle of a legal quandary of being able to conduct business,” Fay said. “It opens them up to potential litigation.”

No state has ever passed a law to legalize marijuana recreationally. Jennie Bowser a senior fellow with the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, she tracks ballot initiatives across the country.

“There have been 7 popular votes on legalizing marijuana over the years starting with California in 1972. Alaska voters have seen it twice. Colorado voters have seen it before it was on the ballot in 2006. And it’s been on the ballot twice in Nevada as well.”

Forty-one percent of Colorado voters supported marijuana legalization last time around, and a recent Denver Post Poll puts current support of the amendment at 51 percent. Even so, Bowser says it’s not clear if this election cycle will help the measure.

“It’s absolutely true that you get more people voting in a presidential year than in an off year. It’s also true that the presence of a controversial ballot question on any topic increases turnout by a few points.”