Marijuana legalization: Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente wants to put it on state ballot in 2012

In today's Denver Post, columnist David Harsanyi argues that the debate over medical marijuana is dishonest in part because advocates actually want legalization -- a goal that might be hurt by the passage of Representative Tom Massey's medical marijuana bill, because it would give dispensaries a monetary incentive to fight against it.

Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente doesn't buy that argument, and no wonder. While he opposes Massey's measure as currently written, he's in favor of both regulating medical marijuana and marijuana legalization.

Vicente insists that the former isn't a stealth tactic to advance the latter. However, he confirms that he's working toward putting a measure to make marijuana legal for Colorado adults on the 2012 ballot.

Regarding Harsanyi's argument that dispensary owners might actually fight against marijuana legalization if a bill regulating the medical marijuana industry passes, Vicente says, "That's just fundamentally untrue. Most dispensary owners are believers that marijuana has real value for sick people. They've seen that it's not the demon weed the government often makes it out to be."

Moreover, he believes the mainstreaming of medical marijuana will help the average person to realize that legalization needn't be feared.

"Obviously, the focus currently is on establishing regulation for medical marijuana centers," he concedes. "But at a certain point, the public is going to say, 'Let's think about regulating marijuana for all adults,' and I think dispensaries are going to play a crucial part in that debate. I think they're going to be positioned well if and when the day comes to move toward common-sense regulations for all adults."

Critics like Colorado Attorney John Suthers believe the entire medical marijuana issue is a ruse -- a backdoor path to legalization, which Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2006.

Not so, Vicente insists: "I think these are separate issues. In the first case, the issue of primary importance is making sure sick people have access to medical marijuana. But once that's in place and we have laws regulating it, I think the state is ready for a discussion about broader marijuana reform."

As such, he feels it's realistic "to place a measure on the ballot statewide in 2012 -- to establish a system of taxing and regulating marijuana for all adults."

What factors argue in favor of that timing?

"We've seen tremendous growth in the popular consciousness in Colorado about this issue, with towns like Breckenridge and Denver removing criminal penalties," he says. "We're currently working with four different cities around the state -- Durango, Leadville, Nederland and Alma -- to take similar actions in their town in 2010, and I think we'll see further reforms at a local level in 2011."

For instance, he goes on, "we're looking at Fort Collins, too. We've gotten tremendous support for our work in Breckenridge and Denver, with people coming to us and saying, 'I want to make my town a sensible town.' And we're happy to help people carry out their desire to do so."

The more communities that vote in favor of decriminalization/legalization, the more momentum will be generated for a statewide measure -- enough, Vicente thinks, to overcome the hefty margin by which the 2006 proposal was defeated.

"I think we'd have a good shot today, but I think we'd have an even better shot in two years," he says. "Nationwide, we're seeing support for legalization growing by about 1 to 1.5 percent every year. In 2006, we got 41 percent of the vote -- and that included some snafus with the Blue Book and so forth, and without those, I think we could have gotten a higher percentage.

"But even if we use that number, we'd be within spitting distance of winning six years later with the ways the surveys are moving. And I think the education work and campaign work Sensible Colorado is doing throughout Colorado is really helping to grow that support even more. I think every year, we pick up more votes."

Victory in 2012 would put medical marijuana on a very different footing -- and even the Post's Harsanyi writes that he sympathizes "with some incremental form of legalization."

If not with the current steps...

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