Sean McAllister experienced a big up and an equally large down yesterday. As the head of Sensible Breckenridge, a marijuana advocacy organization, he was thrilled when residents of the ski town voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize pot in their community. But in his role as board chairman for the statewide group Sensible Colorado, he was distressed by the Colorado Board of Health's move to strike its previous definition of a medical-marijuana caregiver -- a decision that instantly generated confusion and chaos for the burgeoning industry as a whole.
Let's take these one at a time, shall we? Here's what McAllister has to say about what went down in Breckenridge:
"The fact that it was a super-majority made it a resounding endorsement of legalizing marijuana for adults," McAllister argues. "It's a clear statement that Breckenridge thinks marijuana shouldn't be a criminal act for adults, and it also sends a message to the state and the nation that we really need to start a dialogue about how to move beyond the failed policies of prohibition and begin finding a way that society can benefit from legalization instead of sticking our head in the sand, which is kind of our current policy."
This morning, a Colorado Public Radio report about the Breckenridge vote called it "symbolic," because recreational marijuana remains illegal on a state and federal level. McAllister couldn't disagree more.
"Those kinds of statements show that much of the press continues to be dismissive and disrespectful about this issue," he maintains. "It's not symbolic. The police chief in Breckenridge has said he'll take it as direction about how the voters want to go -- and after Denver passed its ordinance, arrests have actually gone down. If people think this is simply symbolic when the likely outcome will be fewer arrests and fewer convictions, then they don't understand.
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"This means all arrests and convictions in the town of Breckenridge will stop," he goes on. "No one can be charged, prosecuted and have a criminal conviction paid for through the taxpayer dollars in Breckenridge. If someone is arrested there, they could be sent over to the county, which is funded by state tax dollars, but we don't expect that to happen. Right now, there are thirty or forty arrests a year in Breckenridge, and while there might be a small handful of cases that might be sent to the county, there will be zero Breckenridge prosecutions."
The savings Breckenridge will enjoy if this comes to pass would be even more profound on a statewide level, in McAllister's view.
"We're moving into a legislative session where legislators will be talking about a $300 million or $400 million budget deficit," he says. "Well, this is a $200 million enterprise, and enforcement costs have been estimated at $75 million -- and if it was taxed and regulated, it could generate $85 million in revenue for the state. I think those estimates are very conservative. This stuff costs a penny a pound; you could tax it at 1000 percent and it would still be within black-market prices today. But even if you use those numbers, that adds up to almost half the state's budget deficit -- and all you have to do is lift prohibition.
"We could prohibit people from eating Twinkies and pass a law making everyone work out three times a week -- and that might make some people healthier. But we don't have the money to be the nanny police," he continues. "That's why I hope this vote sends a signal to our lawmakers that we need to start having a dialogue on this issue. We need to talk about what a rational system would look like."
Trouble is, the discussion over medical marijuana is getting so frenzied that it may prevent the conversation about broader decriminalization from getting much run. The Court of Appeals' decision in the Stacey Clendenin case, which declared that a marijuana caregiver must do more than simply supply a patient, prompted the health board to deep-six its previous definition -- and its approach to doing so definitely left McAllister feeling scorched.
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"This was another in a long line of institutional efforts to undermine the will of the voters," he declares. "They called an emergency meeting at 4:45 on Monday afternoon and set it for Tuesday morning at 10:30 on election day, when [Sensible Colorado executive director] Brian Vicente and I were planning to be in Breckenridge all day for this vote. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but they didn't notify the leading nonprofit in this area until 4:45 the day before -- and although they let us listen in by phone, they muted them and didn't allow anyone to speak. It was an absolute disgrace as far as public participation goes."
Regarding the ruling itself, McAllister feels "it undermines access to medicine for patients. The concept that a caregiver should do more for a patient than supply medicine is like expecting that a pharmacist should also be giving customers massages. It seems outrageous to us. And the Court of Appeals' decision and the health department's actions demonstrate how politicized this issue has become. The court's decision was extraordinary: I've never seen an appeals court say, 'We need to change the law.' That looks like judicial activism to me, and in our opinion, the only people who can change or limit the law are the voters. And the health department didn't have to act in the way it did. The appeals court said, 'We're not ruling on the legality of the regulation' -- and it wasn't a final decision, since the case is still on appeal. But the health department said, 'It's an emergency' -- and it wasn't."
McAllister stresses that "if they try to permanently institute this idea, we would initiate a lawsuit. Clearly, this is something the voters would need to chime in on."
And if that happens, he hopes they'll follow Breckenridge's lead.