Longform

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

Page 5 of 7

The official No on 64 group has gained support from state legislators, county sheriffs and municipal officials across the state — even though 64 would allow municipalities to opt out of the measure. The highest-profile opponent to 64 is Governor John Hickenlooper. "Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation," he said in announcing his opposition. "It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are okay."

That elected officials would oppose the proposal isn't surprising. What is surprising, though, is the number of marijuana activists who oppose Amendment 64.

**********

Truth be told, this state's pot proponents never seem to agree on anything, other than that cannabis is amazing — and even then it's unlikely that they'd say that in unison, and they'd definitely disagree over how to consume it. The Amendment 64 campaign turned in its proposal to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office early, and without consulting other pro-legalization groups. That gave other activists the opportunity to argue that the language is flawed, and even to openly campaign against the measure.

The Colorado Alliance for Regulation and Education has been among the most active. CARE president Rico Colibri, who for a time floated an alternate legalization proposal, says that one of his problems with Amendment 64 is the fact that it's been marketed as the "Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol" — and that misleads voters, he charges, since alcohol sales are not limited to only certain amounts of beer, wine or liquor per customer.

But 64's real danger, Colibri argues, is its failure to create a right for cannabis use that would protect Coloradans from violating federal controlled-substances laws; it doesn't even give cannabis users a defense against employers who want to fire workers for using marijuana in their free time. Colibri points to recent rulings regarding Arizona's immigration laws as proof that state laws cannot be in conflict with federal laws. Passing Amendment 64 would do nothing to prevent federal marijuana arrests in Colorado, he says, and it also fails to remove federal funding and assistance for law enforcement efforts at the state level. "We have to start somewhere, but do we start in a position that kicks out the red carpet and makes everyone think it's like alcohol when it's like in the Controlled Substances Act?" he asked at a recent town hall meeting. "We have to remove funding from the feds. This is a money matter. It's all about money; they don't give a damn about civil rights. If you don't remove the money, they are coming."

And Colibri isn't alone in thinking that Amendment 64 doesn't go far enough. Even Tvert admits he'd like to see a proposal that opens up Colorado to total unregulated legalization of cannabis, but that won't happen overnight. In the meantime, he points out that the one-ounce limits in Amendment 64 are merely a baseline and can be increased by state statute. "The notion that it's better to keep marijuana 100 percent illegal for non-medical use because we'd like it to be 100 percent legal without any sort of regulation is counterproductive and irrational," he says.

Last week, the New York-based Marijuana Arrest Research Project released data showing that police in Colorado made more than 210,000 arrests for marijuana possession between 1986 and 2010, which put it right in the middle of all the states for pot arrest rates.

A disproportionate number of those arrests involved minorities. Although statistically whites use more marijuana than any other racial group, Hispanic tokers are almost twice as likely to be arrested — and African-Americans are more than three times as likely. The study made a point of noting that only 3.8 percent of all Colorado residents are black.

A second study by Drug Science.org based on the same FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data indicates that the arrest rates for possession in Colorado hovered between 10,000 and 12,000 in recent years — arrests that Amendment 64 backers say would end if their bill passes. As neither study breaks down the possession arrests by amount, though, critics say that proponents are being misleading when they say that arrests would be eliminated, since the amendment would only legalize an ounce for personal possession. But 64's backers counter that legal pot shops will eliminate the need for mid-level pot dealers, who are now getting busted for storing up several ounces at a time to sell off.

As for Colorado's decriminalization of up to two ounces? The MARP study points out that a court appearance is mandatory, and missing it could mean up to a $500 fine and six months in jail. "It would be a mistake to think that these arrests do not carry significant consequences for the thousands of mostly young Coloradans who go through the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing process every year," the report concludes.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes