Brian Vicente considers legalizing pot on the November ballot

To legalize or not to legalize? That could be a question for the November ballot. Last week, as thousands hazed up Civic Center in celebration of 4/20 and, just across the way, legislators inched closer to passing the country's first state marijuana dispensary regulatory system, it seemed like Colorado marijuana reform was on a roll like never before.

That's why some folks want to capitalize on that momentum and push for outright legalization on the November ballot.

Preliminary marijuana legalization language has already been filed with the state for such a measure by Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER. And Brian Vicente, executive director of the drug-policy reform group Sensible Colorado says activists will be ready to pull the trigger on the ballot measure if the legislature shafts the industry with its new rules.

If that happens, Vicente believes it'll garner support with power players on the left; he says he and his colleagues have been in "some pretty high-level discussions with progressive players" in the state about how such a measure could help Democratic incumbents hold onto their seats, similar to how Californian Democrats are pinning their hopes on a marijuana legalization measure to be voted on there in the fall.

"The issue is being viewed by Democratic establishment players, including the head of the California Democratic Party, as the issue that will motivate younger voters," says Vicente. "And when these voters are at the polls, they hope that down ballot they will vote for younger or progressive candidates. There is nothing else motivating young voters this year. If the Colorado Democrats don't want to lose the governor's race, or some of the other races including Betsy Markey's seat and, frankly, the state legislature, I think this is an issue they need to strongly consider."

There are several other reasons Vicente thinks this could be a good year to shoot for outright legalization in Colorado. For one thing, thanks to successful recent grassroots campaigns to get marijuana decriminalization measures passed in Breckenridge, Nederland and on several Colorado campuses, the campaign would already have an army of foot soldiers ready to be mobilized for the cause. And if the state's new dispensary regulations pass in the coming weeks, the distribution system they would authorize could be the perfect infrastructure for legalized weed.

Finally, while at least once recent national poll suggests the general population is still evenly split on legalizing pot, Vicente says he's seen survey numbers of Coloradans that suggest in this state, the percentage favoring legalization might be slightly higher.

"I think the volunteers are in place, I think the movement itself is in place, I think it's a matter of finding the funding to get it on the ballot," says Vicente. He it would cost $400,000 to collect enough signatures for this chore; they'd be due on August 1.

So does that mean the marijuana legalization movement in Colorado should move full steam ahead? Vicente isn't sure -- since he also sees several signs indicating it might be prudent to wait a year or two. For one thing, much of the national funding for such efforts is currently tied up in the California measure, and Vicente concedes that "California has the best chance to legalize marijuana in November than any place in history. I think Colorado would have as good of a chance if we could get it on the ballot, but everyone has already donated to California, so who knows."

And Vicente believes that every year they put off the measure here in Colorado, the more likely it is to pass. That's because polling indicates that marijuana reform picks up 1.5 percentage points of support in Colorado per year. In 2005, for example, 54 percent of Denverites voted to decriminalize marijuana, while a year later 55.5 percent of folks in the city voted for a statewide decriminalization measure that ultimately lost at the polls. The next year, just over 57 percent of Denver voters agreed that marijuana should be the city's lowest law-enforcement priority.

Under that same logic, since the statewide decriminalization measure received only 41 percent support in 2006, Vicente figures backing for legalization should safely over 50 percent by 2012. That also happens to be the year of the next presidential election, something Vicente figures would work in legalization's favor. ""In presidential years, tons of people turn out to vote," he says. "What we've found is with our issue, the more people who vote, the better we do."

Does that mean marijuana legalization in Colorado is off the table for 2010? Not necessarily, says Vicente. And considering all the radical medical marijuana developments the state's witnessed recently, in terms of Colorado and pot, these days anything is possible.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner