With U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hinting that the Trump administration might intensify the enforcement of federal marijuana laws, Colorado leaders from both sides of the aisle have come to the defense of the state’s legal marijuana industry in an uncommon show of solidarity in what many consider to be divisive political times of unmatched proportion.
High-level Colorado politicians like Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper have both publicly defended what has become a lucrative recreational marijuana industry for the state. And many other state officials have joined them in contending that Colorado has a constitutional right to legalize marijuana and that the regulations established by the state have been statistically proven to have been effective so far.
Supporters are quick to emphasize the positive economic impact the industry has had in Colorado and the likely downward economic spiral that would occur should that now-bustling industry be tampered with by the federal government.
“The total economic impact of Colorado’s cannabis market was over $1.3 billion in sales,” said Marijuana Industry Group Executive Director Kristi Kelly. “This represents over $3 billion in economic impact … and $199 million in taxes and fees, the vast majority of which came from recreational marijuana. The money has been allocated to public school construction projects and public health and safety priorities. Deconstruction of this market would likely cause a recession in the state.”
The recreational marijuana industry generates revenue for Colorado state government with the 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax. This revenue stream has increased year over year since its implementation: The industry contributed $127 million to the state in 2016 and the revenue has helped increase state funding for education, health care and transportation systems.
Data also shows that the influx of pot shops throughout the state has not increased marijuana use among teenagers. While alcohol still reigns as their top drug, surveys indicate that marijuana usage among Colorado teenagers has decreased and that 62 percent of middle and high schoolers say they have never tried marijuana.
“I’m heartened, as I think many folks are, by the results,” said Larry Wolk, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He added that the survey results “reassure us at least for the time being that there is no increase in youth use.”
During a telephone town hall, Gardner said he would “push back” against federal interference with the recreational marijuana industry. Gardner also said the position of the White House was “at odds” with what he was told during a prior conversation in which Sessions said he would not target state marijuana laws.
His Democratic colleague from Colorado, fellow U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and 10 other senators recently co-signed and delivered a letter to Sessions. The letter condemned federal crackdowns on marijuana states and urged the Department of Justice to maintain the policy of the Obama administration, which allowed states to determine and establish their own marijuana laws. “We respectfully request that you uphold DOJ’s existing policy regarding states that have implemented strong and effective regulations for recreational marijuana use,” the senators wrote in the letter.
Politicians look at the polling, and public support points toward legalized marijuana, said longtime pollster Floyd Ciruli, founder of Denver-based Ciruli and Associates, a public policy, polling and consulting firm.
“The Colorado delegation and local politicians are united by not wanting Washington to preempt recreational marijuana and either recriminalize it or begin some new level of enforcement,” said Ciruli. “They want Washington to stay with the pattern that existed, which was that Washington would allow a state — as long as they regulate it well — to follow their own voters, and as our governor points out, it’s in the constitution. Most people are not in favor of changing that. They think they ought to let the states evolve on their own and so the Colorado delegation has united in a state’s rights position.”
Indeed, polls have demonstrated that Colorado officials are in agreement with the American public. For instance, a Quinnipiac poll indicated that voters support legalizing marijuana in the U.S. by a 59-36 percent margin and oppose federal crackdowns on marijuana states by a 71-23 percent margin.
“A significant majority of voters in Colorado supported creating the state’s legal, regulated cannabis program,” Taylor West, the director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The Colorado Statesman. “Supporters of federalism and states’ rights believe that states are ‘laboratories of democracy,’ where innovative policy ideas can be implemented and tested. When an innovative policy like marijuana legalization is implemented, is working well, and maintains the support of the state’s citizens and lawmakers, the federal government shouldn’t trample on that success.”
And behind that majority of public support, a line of politicians willing to step forward and defend Colorado’s legalized marijuana market has formed.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis recently took preemptive action by forming the Cannabis Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that develops legislation to benefit, promote and protect the marijuana industry.
Republican Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman vouched to uphold the state law and defend the marijuana industry if any federal conflicts emerge. Coffman also invited Sessions to visit Colorado and observe the state’s efficacious marijuana regulations.
And then there are converts like Hickenlooper, who originally opposed Amendment 64, the state constitutional amendment that originally created the legal market for marijuana in Colorado. The governor recently said on NBC’s Meet the Press that he’s “getting close” to supporting recreational marijuana. “I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but we have made a lot of progress. We didn’t see a spike in teenage use. If anything, it’s come down in the last year.”
Hickenlooper also invoked states’ rights, saying he would defend the marijuana amendment that was passed by Colorado voters, carved into the state constitution and implemented throughout many communities.
Across the aisle from Hickenlooper, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg applauded Colorado for spearheading the recreational marijuana movement. “Colorado has been the leader when it comes to marijuana and the regulation,” he said. “People look to us for leadership, and I don’t think our new president will turn his back on allowing states to do what they need to do.”
With all this support for legalized marijuana just in Colorado, would Sessions receive enough public support for a national crackdown on legalization? Ciruli has his doubts.
An October 2016 Gallup Poll demonstrated that national support for legalized marijuana has reached an all-time high of 60 percent. As a result, and as we are already seeing now many national leaders would most likely oppose the position of the White House and the possibility of a crackdown.