Longform

The history of cannabis in Colorado...or how the state went to pot

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Other accounts were more blatantly racist, describing fields of marijuana being grown by Mexicans who "corrupt" local youth. In August 1937, a Denver Post article reported that two Mexican nationals arrested for selling marijuana to high-school students had been jailed for ninety days, as well as fined for narcotics violations and vagrancy; the men had reportedly bragged to police that marijuana was growing wild along the Platte. The story was no doubt as sensational then as it would be today, since cannabis is not native to the Denver area, nor does it grow feral here as it does in other parts of the Midwest that cultivated legal hemp during World War II.

The rest of the country was soon swept up in the racist reefer madness that had already grabbed the Southwest. The federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, making marijuana use and cultivation without a license a crime; however, the government never issued such a license. Just three years earlier, the 1934 Uniform State and Narcotic Drug Act regulating medical narcotics had included cannabis as a legal drug, and any violations involving it were considered misdemeanors.

No more.

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By the 1960s, Hispanics were no longer the primary focus of local enforcement of marijuana laws. The hippies had arrived. The newspapers were full of stories about hippies busted with marijuana plants in their back yard and columns that made it clear that their authors thought hippies deserved to rot in jail over possession of a plant.

But public opinion was shifting. In 1968, the News reported that 67 percent of Colorado College students favored legalization of marijuana. The University of Colorado was another stoner-friendly school; in a March 29, 1965, article, a News reporter revealed his shock at how much marijuana was available on the campus and how many students were using it. By 1970, legislators and a few progressive lawmen were arguing for lowering the penalties on cannabis possession and use, and that August, recreational possession was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. Later that year, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County on a complete drug-decriminalization platform — and nearly won.

The cannabis climate had clearly become more friendly by 1973, when legislator Michael Strang, a Carbondale Republican, introduced the first re-legalization effort in Colorado history. The bill would have made possession and use of marijuana legal for anyone eighteen or older. "Our society has decided it wants to use this stuff, regardless of the risk," he said. Strang's bill would have created licenses for growers, wholesalers and retailers, and put a $6-per-ounce tax on any marijuana sold; at the time, the going rate for an ounce was about $15.

Although Strang's proposal never passed out of committee, Oregon reduced the penalties for marijuana possession that year. And in 1975, the Colorado Legislature followed suit, decriminalizing possession, transportation and private use of marijuana; possessing up to an ounce of the stuff was made a petty offense, with a maximum fine of $100. (That amount was increased to two ounces in 2010, still with a maximum fine of $100 and the potential for fifteen days in jail for things like smoking in public. And sale to anyone can still net up to fourteen years in state prison.)

Colorado's first medical marijuana bill, dubbed the "Dangerous Drugs Therapeutic Research Act," was introduced in 1979 and signed into law by Governor Dick Lamm; it allowed cancer and glaucoma patients to use medical marijuana. Doctors had to prescribe the drug, and patients were to pick up their meds at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver — but there was a hitch. The program was dependent on federal government approval, which never came. Lamm signed another bill, called "Therapeutic Use of Cannabis," in 1981; this time, patients were to obtain their pot from the feds. They're still waiting.

The sponsor of that bill, then-Representative John Herzog of Colorado Springs, says the goal was to expand the program created in 1979 to twelve hospitals around the state, which would all be able to offer cannabis to cancer patients. He recalls that the measure received a surprising amount of support from fellow legislators; the minimal opposition came mostly from local PTAs. Although the expanded program even got a nod from the National Institutes of Health, it never took off. That's because in October 1970, the federal government had classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with no therapeutic value — a status it officially retains today.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, allowing the use and cultivation (and sale, some argue) of medical marijuana. That got the ball rolling in Colorado, and proponents of MMJ pushed Amendment 19 onto the ballot in 1998. But then-Secretary of State Vikki Buckley refused to count the votes, saying that the measure did not have the proper number of signatures to get on the ballot in the first place. Those proponents tried again, though, and in 2000, Coloradans approved Amendment 20, which made this the only state to legalize medical marijuana in its constitution.

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes