Longform

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

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If Colorado voters pass Amendment 64, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use by adults 21 and older would be legalized. (Possession of up to two ounces would still be decriminalized under state law for adults 18 and up.) Amendment 64 would also authorize the state to collect a voter-approved excise tax of up to 15 percent on marijuana — with the first $40 million collected earmarked for public-school construction across Colorado. Although personal sales would not be legalized, cultivation of up to six plants at a time would be permitted (again, for those 21 and up only), and growers would be able to keep their entire harvest, even if it is over an ounce; they could also give away up to an ounce to other adults 21 or over. (Laws against growing currently carry penalties of eighteen months in jail and up to $5,000 in fines for even a single plant.)

"Marijuana prohibition is causing harm every day we allow it to continue, so we believe that it is imperative that we replace it with a more sensible system as soon as possible," Tvert says. Past SAFER victories have played "a significant role in sparking a dialogue about marijuana in Colorado," he adds, "and the emergence of the regulated MMJ system has also played a role. If you talk with [Vicente], he'll point more to the legal wins, but I know the social movement has played a huge role as well. Both have changed the way people think about marijuana."

Amendment 64 has received the backing of numerous groups, including the Colorado Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party of Colorado (including presidential nominee and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson), the Green Party of Colorado, the local branch of the ACLU and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. It is also supported by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, as well as retired Denver Police lieutenant Tony Ryan, who spent 36 years patrolling the city. But its most recognizable supporter could well be former congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican firebrand who called marijuana prohibition a "wasteful and ineffective government program" in his official endorsement of 64.

Supporters don't just give Amendment 64 lip service. According to VotersEdge.org, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign financing, the Amendment 64 campaign has collected more than $1.7 million from individuals, with the majority coming from out of state. California-based entrepreneur Scott Bannister contributed a quarter-million to the campaign, and San Diego-based peace activist Lawrence Hess donated $30,000. Donations from groups supporting the measure, including the Coalition to End Marijuana Prohibition, have upped the pro-64 war chest to about $3.7 million. The largest chunk for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol came from the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which donated more than $1.2 million. Drug Policy Action, a national drug-law reform organization, dropped another $65,000 in the kitty.

Also noteworthy is a $50,000 donation from California-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a contribution that echoes back to the early days of cannabis in this country. The Bronner's soaps are made from hemp oil that company head David Bronner now has to import from Canada, and with no competition, Canadian hemp producers are charging a premium. Bronner sees Amendment 64 as a way of forcing the issue of commercial hemp farming with the federal government. "Basically, we need major agricultural states to reach a critical mass," he says. "If they adopt an industrial hemp program, it will keep the pressure on Washington — to get more and more traction, so we can get industrial hemp cultivated again."

The No on 64 campaign has only a fraction of pro-64's money. Campaign director Roger Sherman says the disproportionate funding is disappointing but not surprising. "I mean, it is what it is," he says. "They benefit from a national movement, and there is a national network of donors. It's always a challenge when you are faced with that kind of opposition."

But that doesn't mean Sherman is opposed to out-of-state money. By mid-October, No on 64 had racked up almost $440,000 in donations. The largest — $157,497 — came from Florida-based Save Our Society From Drugs, a group whose website lists its mission as helping Americans "defeat ballot initiatives, statutory proposals and other attempts to 'medicalize' unsafe, ineffective and unapproved drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and crack cocaine." Focus on the Family affiliate Citizenlink ranks second with a $25,000 donation, followed by Colorado businessman Steve Mooney's $20,000. Centennial's family-operated Trice Jewelers donated $15,000.

But while their campaign fund might be overwhelmed by the pro-pot pot, "We have the right message on our side," Sherman says. "This is not the kind of issue we want embedded in our constitution. If you love Colorado, is this really the type of thing you want our state to be known for?"

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes