Proponents of legal pot seek voter approval

But ‘Smart Colorado’ campaign says the initiatives are dopey
The Colorado Statesman

Cannabis advocates say it is high time for recreational marijuana to be legalized in Colorado, and so they are out in full force seeking support for a ballot question that has already been certified for the November election, and collecting signatures for another two ballot proposals, all of which aim to end prohibition in the state, and perhaps begin to topple the dominoes towards federal decriminalization.

So far only one initiative has officially secured ballot access for November, Amendment 64, the most widely regarded proposal that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The secretary of state certified it on Feb. 27 after proponents gathered the 86,105 valid signatures needed to place the question on the ballot.

The competing two proposals represent a divide within the cannabis community over how to properly tax and regulate recreational marijuana; assuming all three make the ballot and voters back one or all of the initiatives.

Initiative 40, spearheaded by medical cannabis advocate Michelle LaMay — known as the Dean of Green because of her role as the dean of Cannabis University of Colorado, a school dedicated to education around medical marijuana cultivation and regulation — says her initiative differs from the other two legalization proposals in the sense that it offers directives directly to the courts.

The initiative would prohibit courts from imposing any fine or sentence for the possession of marijuana. LaMay points out that while the other two legalization initiatives seek to make statutory changes, I-40 seeks to legalize marijuana by ending cannabis-related prosecution in the judicial system.

“When you go into the statutes and you start changing them, that’s where it gets complex,” said LaMay. “This is simple and a new way, a back door to legalization.”

She has until July 18 to submit the 86,105 valid signatures needed to place the initiative on the ballot. LaMay says she is about 60 percent there.

“We’re set to go out in big forces to some big events,” she said of her effort to collect the rest of the required signatures. As with all initiatives, LaMay would like to hand in at least 100,000 signatures to be safe.

Need for statutory change?

Other proponents of marijuana legalization, however, believe statutory changes need to take place in order to offer users protections under the law. Proponents of Initiative 70, spearheaded by cannabis advocate Rico Colibri — who helped craft medical marijuana regulation in Colorado by working on House Bill 1284 in 2010 — says his proposal is “radically different.”

Colibri points out that multiple court cases have taken place in Colorado over medical marijuana simply because the constitutional amendment that voters backed in 2000 offers few protections. He says the language is vague on what constitutes cannabis crimes. For that reason, proponents of I-70 crafted their initiative to remove all criminal laws that make marijuana illegal.

I-70 defines personal use of marijuana as a constitutional right, allowing recreational users to have eight plants per adult, or 16 plants per household, or the equivalent of up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana per day. Colibri himself acknowledges that that should be enough to hold over just about any recreational user adding, “Anything more than that and you should probably take a break to take in some air.”

He says it is important to define recreational use as a constitutional right in order to avoid unintended consequences, such as users losing low-income housing opportunities, access to firearms, child custody cases, school financial aid, and other such areas in which marijuana use could have negative personal and financial consequences. He believes that by providing the constitutional language in I-70, including prohibiting the state from assisting the federal government with enforcement, Coloradans using recreational marijuana won’t have to fear federal prosecution.

“If you’re a drug trafficker from Mexico, you’re getting arrested. If you’re a citizen and you’re growing marijuana in your backyard… no resources can be used to help federal law,” said Colibri.

“We create a constitutional right so that we actually protect the individual,” he added.

I-70 would only apply to adults 21 years of age or older, and it aims to regulate marijuana like tobacco. For that reason, commercial licensing fees would be low, about $60, said Colibri.

He says that by regulating marijuana like tobacco, there is the possibility for free market opportunities, including recreational marijuana shops opening in Colorado, similar to the so-called “coffee shops” of Amsterdam. The shops would operate just like how tobacco shops sell tobacco to the masses.

Proponents have until Aug. 6 to submit the valid signatures needed to place I-70 on the ballot, though Colibri acknowledges that it is an uphill battle, having collected only about a third of the 120,000 signatures proponents would like to gather in order to safely submit their application.

“We’re on track and we’re in dialogue with the money people, that’s the way it’s done,” Colibri said of the petition effort, acknowledging a need for primary donors. “Let’s face it, the reality is that if you get the primary donors, you get the signatures.”

Regulate like alcohol, not tobacco

But I-70 proponents are at philosophical odds with Amendment 64 legalization proponents over whether to regulate marijuana like tobacco, or alcohol, and over whether enough protections are in place to shield recreational users from unintended consequences. The rift could impact fundraising opportunities and votes received by both sides.

As the only initiative to be certified for the ballot, Amendment 64 proponents have already registered three issue committees: the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, The Coalition to End Marijuana Prohibition, and the Drug Policy Action Colorado Committee.

The first two committees are based in Colorado and both are registered to well-known Denver-based legalization advocate and Amendment 64 proponent Mason Tvert. But the Drug Policy Action Colorado Committee, an arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, is based in New York City. The Drug Policy Alliance is a national drug reform powerhouse that is constantly working to end marijuana prohibition.

Combined, the three issue committees so far for the current 2012 one-year election cycle have raised $112,387 for Amendment 64 proponents. Proponents have also raised another $71,187 in non-monetary contributions. The last filings were reported on May 21. In contrast, opponents, registered as Smart Colorado, have raised only $15,000.

Amendment 64 seeks to make the personal use, possession of up to one ounce and limited home growing of marijuana up to six plants legal for adults 21 years of age and older. It would also require the Legislature to enact an excise tax of up to 15 percent on the sale of recreational marijuana, which would need to be approved by Colorado voters. The first $40 million in revenue raised annually by a tax on marijuana would be credited to funding for public school capital construction.

A similar legalization initiative was widely rejected by voters in 2006.

Unlike I-70, Amendment 64 seeks to regulate marijuana like alcohol, but also with the intended aim of legalizing recreational use of marijuana, including allowing retail locations.

Despite criticism from those running competing legalization efforts within the same cannabis community, Tvert says the goal is the same, arguing, “Amendment 64 would make marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and regulate it in a manner similar to alcohol. It would establish a responsible regulatory framework in which marijuana can be controlled and removed from the underground market, and it would also allow for the legal cultivation of industrial hemp.”

Tvert shrugs off criticism that his initiative would do nothing to legally protect recreational users from unintended legal consequences, arguing that there is nothing that can be done in Colorado law to stop or inhibit the federal government’s ability to enforce marijuana as an illicit substance.

“Not allowing the state to work with the federal government, that does absolutely nothing to affect the federal government’s ability to enforce federal law,” he said, adding that his coalition is the largest group of marijuana reform supporters in the state.

Amendment 64 proponents have already launched an aggressive campaign effort, highlighting indirect support from famed evangelist Pat Robertson and shock jock Howard Stern, and direct support from the Colorado Democratic Party, to name a few.

The campaign has unveiled a controversial billboard above a liquor store across from Sports Authority Field at Mile High that features a woman stating that she prefers marijuana to alcohol and then asks, “Does that make me a bad person?” A television ad for the campaign has also run, which features a daughter writing to her mother discussing how she has come to the conclusion that marijuana is better for her than alcohol. The ad was released just before Mother’s Day and is titled, “Dear Mom.” Proponents say the goal is to “inspire thousands of mothers and daughters… to have conversations about marijuana.”

Could division of proponents crush legalization efforts?

Tvert declined to openly discuss the two other legalization efforts and whether they might impact his campaign, noting that the proponents from the competing proposals still have a lot of work ahead of them before they are certified for the ballot.

Tvert also chose not to attack the proponents or the competing initiatives themselves, noting that all three proposals have the same goal, adding simply of his initiative, “When this initiative passes, it will be legal for adults to possess and use limited quantities of marijuana.”

But Colibri was less guarded in his criticism of Tvert, suggesting that the proponents of Amendment 64 are not interested in crafting a constitutional amendment that actually protects citizens from prosecution. He personally attacked Tvert and Brian Vicente, director of Sensible Colorado, who helped to author Amendment 64 with Tvert.

“Brian and Mason are insignificant politically,” said Colibri.

“What I’m concerned about is horribly flawed language going into the state constitution,” he continued.

Colibri says he is not overly concerned that the competing measures could cripple legalization efforts, but said that if all three proposals fail, “Maybe we can all get around the table and break bread and figure out how to make this work.”

Opposition efforts underway

One group that would like to ensure that legalization does not happen this year (or any other year) is Smart Colorado, the issue committee established to fight efforts at legalization.

Smart Colorado has hired Denver-based CRL Associates to do its lobbying, a high-profile public policy firm that has lobbied for and against a wide range of issues in the state. Attorney Jon Anderson, a partner with Holland & Hart, has been registered as Smart Colorado’s agent.

For opponents, the issue comes down to a proliferation of marijuana in Colorado and the impact to families, lifestyles and education. Roger Sherman, chief operating officer for CRL Associates who is serving as Smart Colorado’s campaign director, argues that K-12 school suspensions in Colorado have spiked along with marijuana usage by children under the age of 12.

“The people that we’re talking to don’t want to see this happen in Colorado,” said Sherman. “There’s great legal issues around this — it’s bad for business as far as employers are concerned and it impacts how employers deal with their employees. We’re talking about huge ramifications on our children, on our state, and just the whole impacts on health and education.”

Critics also raise concerns over legitimizing marijuana and sending a mixed message to children. “It continues to be against federal law, and the U.S. Attorney has made it clear that by their actions, they’re not going to sit by and watch this happen,” continued Sherman. “For us to thumb our nose at the federal government, those are the things that upset people.”

Sherman says the Smart Colorado coalition is growing, seeing great support from moms across all walks of life, as well as from the business community, which has raised “real concerns about how we would implement and deal with this in the workplace,” according to Sherman, who added that the amendment could impact drug-free work zones.

Beyond the unintended consequences, Sherman argues that there are direct impacts to health and wellbeing by using marijuana, arguing, “This is not my mom and dad’s marijuana. It’s much stronger, and it has huge adverse affects on the brain…”

“We like to talk about how healthy we are, how we have the lowest obesity rate and that we’re a very active community with a highly-educated workforce,” Sherman concluded. “Becoming the pot capital of the country really flies in the face of what we’re trying to accomplish in Colorado.”

There are still 10 initiatives that could potentially make it to the ballot this fall, though only six have a known active signature gathering process underway. The other potential ballot questions voters may see in November include assigning constitutional rights to the unborn, two proposals addressing water rights issues, and another initiative that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

But proponents of initiatives that would create a day in Colorado calling for world peace, the right to carry a firearm without a concealed-carry permit, the abolishment of population-based state Senate districts, and the end to party primaries in favor of general elections, have halted petition-gathering efforts.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com