Around 9 p.m. on Election Night, the backers of a statewide initiative to end prohibition of marijuana got word that voters had heeded the call. The reggae music blasting at Casselman’s Bar and Venue in Denver — where supporters had gathered — faded into the background as an explosion of cheers and tears poured from the dozens of activists dancing in the energy-intensive room. The news ended what had been nearly eight years of campaigning for legalization in Colorado, and offered a resounding vindication for proponents who had been mocked, teased and criticized by leaders across the state for their efforts.
“We’ve been up against institutional blockades. This is an issue where voters and the people of Colorado have led, and the leaders need to implement their will,” exclaimed a jubilant Brian Vicente, a well-known marijuana attorney and activist who co-wrote Amendment 64. “We’ve been laughed at; we’ve been pushed around; people haven’t taken us seriously. But at the end of the day, the voters of this state stand with us.”
Colorado historically became the first state to legalize marijuana. Shortly after, news broke that Washington became the second state to legalize it. A third legalization initiative in Oregon failed.
Amendments 64 allows adults 21 and older to posses up to one ounce of marijuana and have up to six plants growing in their home. Public consumption is still illegal.
It requires the legislature to enact an excise tax of up to 15 percent, which would need to be approved by Colorado voters. The first $40 million in revenue raised annually would be credited to funding for public school capital construction.
The constitutional amendment sets up the possibility for retail locations, though the legislature in the upcoming session must enact rules and regulations to govern such pot stores. Local municipalities will be allowed to prohibit retail locations in their communities.
Finally, the amendment allows for the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp.
Vicente and Amendment 64 co-author Mason Tvert celebrated the sweat and tears they had injected into the initiative on Tuesday night. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed the amendment, was more measured in his response.
“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through,” Hickenlooper said.
“That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” Hickenlooper quipped.
Tvert fired back, suggesting that the governor was simply bitter that his opposition campaign failed. Amendment 64 ended up passing with an estimated 1.28 million votes, 54.8 percent compared to 45.1, and received more support than President Barack Obama in the state. The measure was victorious in seven counties that voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and lost in only one — Conejos — that voted for Obama.
It was a far cry from a similar measure in 2006, when Colorado voters rejected legalization by 59 percent to 41 percent.
“I would take Cheetos and Goldfish over sour grapes any day,” a sharp Tvert rapidly rattled back when told of the governor’s statement.
Rob Corry, a prominent local medical marijuana attorney and cannabis activist, responded to Hickenlooper’s statement by delivering a gift to the governor’s office on Thursday afternoon.
“I wanted to make sure that the governor complies with his solemn duty to sign this proclamation,” he said. “I was hoping to get him to sign it right then and there by giving him a bag of Goldfish and Cheetos, and my daughters were willing to part with their beloved Goldfish and Cheetos.”
The new law won’t take effect until Hickenlooper signs an official proclamation certifying passage of the amendment, which he is obligated to do by Jan. 5. Corry said he wanted to get the governor to act quickly.
Opposition to 64 had large coalition
The campaign against Amendment 64 was led by CRL Associates, a well-known public policy firm in town. Some of the No on 64 campaign’s most vocal leaders included Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Attorney General John Suthers and former Govs. Bill Owens and Bill Ritter. They spoke of a proliferation of marijuana that would paint Colorado as a tourist trap for free-spirited cannabis lovers, leading to increased use by children and more traffic accidents.
“We were up against a national movement, and we did the best we could with the resources we had,” said Danielle Glover, No on 64 coalition director. “We just hope that our concerns will be kept in mind as the implementation of this goes through, and it’s pretty much up to the attorney general and the governor and the Department of Justice on what the next steps are.”
Carly Holbrook, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Tourism Office, was careful not to rush to judgment on the initiative, noting that several legal questions are still yet to be answered. She would not characterize marijuana legalization and the impact on tourism in the state.
“There’s the potential because we would be one of the first state’s leading the charge, that people would travel here to experience that,” she said. “But just given where things stand right now and all of the uncertainties around what will happen, and will it pan out, it’s just really hard for us to comment right now.”
If late-night talk show comments are any indication, then Colorado could be in for a cannabis-related tourism boom. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Jimmy Fallon have all offered their one-liner jokes about legalization in Colorado.
Holbrook agreed that the influx could result in more money for the state and the promotion of tourism: “Of course more money is a good thing, but we aren’t really commenting on Amendment 64 specifically because we don’t know how the taxes will pan out, and what will happen with it ultimately.”
Proponents have been fighting since 2005
The mostly young coalition of proponents had pointed out that over the past 40 years, the federal government’s drug war cost $1 trillion and led to the arrest of 850,000 Americans for marijuana violations in 2010 alone. They reminded voters that a recent study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that marijuana use among Colorado teens — where medical marijuana is already legal — is going down, while it is simultaneously going up nationally.
All along, the comparison was made to alcohol, with the Amendment 64 campaign going as far as to call itself the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Many attacks were lodged at Hickenlooper, pointing out that the governor made his money in the brewing industry in Colorado. The message was that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana, so voters should be given a choice.
Proponents lined up mothers, people of color, law enforcement officials and community activists to add a face to the campaign.
The strategy hardly changed over the past seven years, when the effort kicked off in Denver in 2005. Proponents at the time — under the name Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER — successfully passed the Denver Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative, which essentially decriminalized marijuana in Denver.
This year, however, proponents were boosted by more than $1.6 million in contributions from both local and national supporters. Comparatively, opponents only raised $542,919.
Betty Aldworth, Amendment 64’s advocacy director, said it took time to convince voters. But she says momentum is growing and a new generation of voters is turning the tide.
“People my age have been raised through the DARE program, and other programs that lie to us about marijuana and marijuana users, and we’re all products of the last 70 years of prohibitionist rhetoric,” said Aldworth, who is 36 years old. “When we say marijuana is safer and we can regulate it like alcohol, it does take a minute for people to realize that. But we’ve done a phenomenal job.”
Officials: Don’t smoke ‘em quite yet
But just as cannabis advocates were waking up on Wednesday morning — still inhaling the sweet taste of victory — state and federal officials were warn-ing against any immediate celebration.
Hickenlooper and Suthers spoke with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Frida, hoping for clarification from the federal government.
“They emphasized the need for the federal government to articulate what its position will be related to Amendment 64. Everyone shared a sense of urgency and agreed to continue talking about the issue,” said Eric Brown, a spokesman for Hickenlooper.
Holder said on Thursday that he’s unsure whether he’ll serve for another four years under Obama, so the opinion Hickenlooper receives could change if there is a new U.S. attorney general.
Suthers acknowledged that he is the point man to defend the state in court against the feds.
“Absent action by Congress, Coloradans should not expect to see successful legal challenges to the ability of the federal government to enforce its marijuana laws in Colorado,” Suthers said in a statement. “Accordingly, I call upon the United States Department of Justice to make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by Amendment 64 (particularly large wholesale grow operations) as soon as possible in order to assist state regulators and the citizens of Colorado in making decisions about the implementation of Amendment 64.”
John Walsh, the U.S. attorney of Colorado, said in a statement: “The Department of Justice’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time.”
Tvert believes the tipping point came Tuesday when voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, and he is confident that over time, the federal government will honor the will of individual states.
“The more people talk about marijuana and hear the facts about marijuana, the more they recognize that our current system is not working and that it’s time for a new approach,” he said.