DENVER — Colorado continues to plow into the future of legalized marijuana as residents begin to vote on Proposition AA, a tax measure that would fund pot-industry regulation enforcement here. The vote is sure to draw national and international attention on the heels of the Drug Policy Alliance’s annual Drug Policy Reform Conference held in the city last week.
Observers are watching to see whether Colorado and Washington can establish regulated markets for their recently legalized state businesses. The stakes are high. Major hiccups could bring federal intervention or reverse accumulating public support. Most parties in Colorado seem to agree the tax initiative on the ballot will pass.
“I don’t see major bumps,” Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Colorado Independent, referring to the rollout of the legalized market. “I think the key factor is as long as the Feds feel that Colorado is doing this in a responsible way, I think that it’ll keep moving forward.”
Attorney General Eric Holder helped pave the way when he released a long-awaited memo in August that allowed Colorado and Washington to proceed implementing the laws without fearing litigation. The memo laid down conditions, which included preventing Colorado pot from flowing into neighboring states.
But the memo has been a qualified win for pot activists, who view Holder’s assurances as fragile at best. With only two years until the next presidential election, many in the movement are cautious not to take present stability for granted. They warn that a reversal in policy could come easily and say that further substantive reforms are necessary on a national scale.
The White House’s willingness not to impede state-based regulation efforts coincides with a massive jump in public support over the last 11 months that seems to be changing the conversation.
“It seems as if the victories in Colorado and Washington just made it real for people,” Nadelmann said. “There is a sense now of momentum dramatically unlike anything we’ve seen before.”
Long time marijuana prohibition critic Colorado Congressman Jared Polis introduced federal legislation that decriminalizes and regulates marijuana. Polis, who spoke at the conference last week, assigned audience members with “homework,” asking them to call and petition representatives to co-sponsor the bill. Another federal bill, introduced by California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, amends the Controlled Substances Act to protect state laws concerning marijuana from federal intervention.
Still, most politicians have avoided the top-down approach to decriminalization and regulation, so many activists in states across the country are fighting to take the question to voters in 2014 or 2016. Activists in at least Oregon and Alaska may have a proposal on the ballot next year, while experts speculate as many as five other states may propose ballot-box legalization measures by 2016.
Voters in these marijuana swing states will be watching Colorado intensely, searching for cracks in the legal market that might make legalization in their state a risky choice.
Most observers expect glitches.
“It’s not going to be easy, you know. They’re making history,” Nadelmann said. “They’re taking this from an illicit market to a legally regulated market, and these transitions are never smooth.”
Nadelmann noted that “all the key players” in Colorado have been in communication with one another, a fact he said bodes well.
“One should not be surprised by the bumps. One should assume that the bumps are there, and figure out how to go over them or around them or whatever’s necessary.”