Marijuana legalization effort launched in Colorado today

Attorney Brian Vicente (center) addresses reporters in Denver's Civic Center Park today, as petition organizer Emmett Reistroffer, left, and executive director Mason Tvert, right, look on. (Kersgaard)

In a little more than a year, Colorado may become the first state to legalize marijuana. Between now and then, prepare to meet petition waving enthusiasts. In fact, prepare to meet competing petition wavers as it is quite likely that at least two different pro-marijuana groups will propose at least two different legalization schemes.

First out of the box is the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, sponsored and/or supported by groups such as SAFER Colorado, Sensible Colorado, the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance.

This initiative would amend the Colorado Constitution to allow people 21 and older to buy and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. They would also be able to grow up to six plants and to possess all of the marijuana produced by those plants.

Mason Tvert, the leader of the group, says that the black market currently makes marijuana more easily accessible to children and teenagers than alcohol is. “Parents should support this,” he said. “This will shift it from a prohibition paradigm to a regulation paradigm.”

He said they were planning on the 2012 election because they think the higher voter turnout of a presidential election should favor legalization of marijuana.

He said this initiative has been in the works for more than five years. He said it took that long to “bring forward the best initiative possible.”

Now, he said, “we will begin talking to voters about the need to end marijuana prohibition, regulate marijuana and begin taxing it in similar fashion to alcohol.

“This is a very exciting time in Colorado. We are leading the way around the country by bringing forth perhaps the strongest most sensible marijuana law in perhaps the entire country,” Tvert said.

He said the time seems right to legalize and regulate marijuana, noting that Congressman Jared Polis had recently co-sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana at the federal level, leaving it to states to decide how to deal with it.

He said this was an issue that both liberals and conservatives agree on. In fact, during last year’s Colorado governor’s race, the only candidate who favored legalization was the most conservative: Tom Tancredo.

Brian Vicente, an attorney working on the initiative, said most marijuana arrests are for simple possession of less than an ounce, with most arrests dealing with as little as a few grams.

The initiative would enable the state to collect sales taxes on marijuana and also to levy an excise tax of up to 15 percent. Vicente said the first $40 million raised annually from the excise tax will be earmarked for public school construction. “We estimate overall it will bring in about $70 million a year including savings to law enforcement,” he said.

Medical marijuana patients will not have to pay the excise tax.

Vicente said medical marijuana dispensaries would be able to apply for a new license to become retail centers.

Supporters emphasized that if this initiative becomes law it will not allow people under 21 to buy or possess marijuana. It will not allow use in public. It will not allow people to drive vehicles when under the influence of marijuana. It would not require businesses to allow use at work or to make any accommodation for marijuana users.

“This will allow the state to control the use of marijuana. It will take it out of the hands of cartels and gangsters and will move it into a strict state controlled system,” said Vicente.

Even as they were holding their press conference at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, someone from one of the competing marijuana groups was handing out information sheets detailing what they think is wrong with this proposal, namely that it doesn’t really legalize marijuana. The flyer referred to this SAFER initiative as a “sentencing reform initiative,” because possession of more than an ounce would remain illegal and subject people to arrest.

The opposing group, calling itself Legalize2012, hopes to begin a petition drive for “true legalization” soon. One of the leaders of that group, Laura Kriho, actually referred to Tvert as “my opponent” in a recent public appearance.

She said she wants to abolish all marijuana crimes from the books in Colorado and that if voters reject such language, she will try again in 2014, 2016 etc.

Kathleen Chippi, at the same forum last month, noted that truly legalizing marijuana would make it more like potatoes. “I can have as many potatoes as I want. The entire drug war is based on lies,” she said. “Let’s get the cops out of our lives.”

So, in addition to the SAFER initiative that would legalize possession of up to one ounce, it is a pretty fair bet that at least one more initiative will be introduced and that the next one will take a much more hard line stance, calling for the more or less complete legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.


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