Colorado Legalization Initiative Heads for the Home Stretch
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With only a few weeks left until election day, Colorado's Amendment 64 tax and regulate marijuana initiative is well-positioned to win on November 6, and its supporters are doing everything they can to ensure it does. Opponents are gearing up as well, and the weeks leading up to the election are going to be critical.
Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants in an enclosed locked space. It also allows for the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp. And it would create a state-regulated marijuana cultivation, processing, and distribution system, including retail sales.
If the state fails to regulate marijuana commerce, localities could issue licenses. Localities would also have the right to ban marijuana businesses, either through their elected officials or via citizen-initiated ballot measures.
If Amendment 64 passes, the legislature would be charged with enacting an excise tax of up to 15% on wholesale sales, with the first $40 million of revenue raised annually directed to the Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund. In keeping with the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), such a tax increase would have to be approved by voters.
Amendment 64 does not change existing medical marijuana laws, but it does exempt medical marijuana from the proposed excise tax. For current patients, passage of Amendment 64 would enhance their privacy because no registration would be required -- just ID proving adulthood.
Amendment 64 does not increase or add penalties for any current pot law violations, nor does it change existing driving while impaired laws (although a bill reintroduced this year once again seeks to impose a per se DUID standard.)
The initiative's provisions appear to be broadly popular. According to the latest poll, released Saturday by SurveyUSA for the Denver Post, Amendment 64 is leading with 51%, with 40% opposed and 8% undecided.
While in line with other recent polls, the SurveyUSA/Denver Post poll marks the first time in recent months that support for the initiative has broken 50% except for an outlier June Rasmussen poll that had support at 61%. The Talking Points Memo's PollTracker Average, which includes this latest poll, currently shows 49.7% for Amendment 64, with 39.3% opposed.
That 10-point lead in the polls has initiative backers pleased, but not complacent.
"There has certainly been a nice positive trend in the past few polls, but we are not letting up in our efforts to build support," said Mason Tvert of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is leading the Amendment 64 effort.
"We've got a good feeling, but at the same time, we're redoubling our efforts to push this over the end line," said Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, who is part of the campaign. "We haven't seen a tax and regulate measure pass anywhere yet. It's a heavy lift, but we're confident."
"It's looking good overall, the polling is good, and we're starting to make some hay within the progressive community," said Art Way, the Colorado point man for the Drug Policy Alliance's lobbying and campaign arm, Drug Policy Action Network.
The campaign has sufficient financial backing to go the distance, although it is of course always looking for more. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the main, but not the only funding mechanism, for the campaign, has taken in nearly a million dollars so far, according to the Secretary of State's Office. Related campaign committees have raised another $50,000 or so.
"We've seen a whole lot of support from around the state and the country and to see that continuing toward the election," said Tvert. "It's looking like it will come down to the wire, so late contributions will have a bigger impact than ever before."
With only $87,000 in the bank rank now, the campaign coffers may appear relatively bare, but that's deceiving, said Vicente.
"We've placed about $800,000 worth of ads that will air in October, and we bought that space months in advance because it's cheaper," he explained. "There are ungodly sums of presidential campaign money coming in now."
The only organized opposition so far, Smart Colorado, by contrast has raised only about $162,000, the bulk of it from long-time drug war zealot Mel Sembler of the Drug-Free America Foundation. And it has limited itself to the occasional press release and responses to reporters' queries. Still, it has more money than it had in 2006, when a similar initiative lost with 41% of the vote.
"I've never seen the opposition have so much money," said Tvert. "In 2006, they came up with maybe $50,000. Regardless, the fact is that our opponents will rely on scare tactics and fear-mongering and will partner with law enforcement and the drug treatment industry, who benefit from maintaining the prohibition status quo."
But other opposition is emerging, with a battle for supporters raging on both sides. The opposition has picked up the support of Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), as well as the endorsements of numerous sheriffs, prosecutors, and elected officials.
Still, Amendment 64 has been impressive on this count too, picking up endorsements from the state Democratic, Green, and Libertarian parties, the NAACP, local elected officials, the ACLU of Colorado, as well as the Gary Johnson campaign and the drug reform movement, among others.
"Government officials have been standing in the way of marijuana policy reform for more than 80 years, and the public has come to realize their opposition is not based on evidence so much as politics and the fear of change," Tvert said. "We've seen public support grow significantly in the past 15 years despite the fact that we still largely see elected officials opposed, and now we're seeing things like Gov. Hickenlooper being ripped into by newspaper editorials after he came out against. There was a time when papers like the Denver Post would have paid him kudos for standing up against this, but now, they criticize him for being hypocritical."
One area where the campaign doesn't have to worry too much is the marijuana and medical marijuana community. While there has been some grumbling in the ranks from those in search of the perfect initiative, unlike the "Stoners Against Prop 19" movement in California in 2010 or the internecine warfare in Washington state this year, the friendly fire in Colorado has been fairly muted.
"We occasionally hear people complaining, but the back and forth has been focused almost entirely between us and the no campaign," Tvert said. "By and large, the people who support ending marijuana prohibition in Colorado have come together to support this initiative."
"We're not worried about losing the base," agreed Vicente. "We went to great efforts to involve lots of stakeholders, including lots of dispensary owners and activists, when drafting the language and formulating the campaign plans. People feel bought in win our initiative; it appeals to all Coloradans, but to our base as well."
Another reason Colorado hasn't seen the circular firing squad that is taking place this year in Washington is that Amendment 64 doesn't include some of the controversial provisions included in the Washington initiative, said Vicente.
"There are some key differences with Washington," he pointed out. "We allow adults to home grow and we don't dictate a DUID level. By steering clear of those issues, we help maintain our more traditional base."
If the base appears secure, another key demographic is definitely in play, and it's an uphill struggle for the campaign. The polling throughout suggest that parents with children at home and especially mothers remain a weak spot. The campaign is acutely aware of that and has created another campaign organization, Moms and Dads for Marijuana Regulation, to address it.
"One of the most powerful ways that parents are becoming educated about the benefits of the tax and regulate system is conversation with other parents," said Betty Aldworth of Moms and Dads. "Moms and dads are starting to recognize that taking it out of unregulated market and putting it behind the counter where we can tax and regulate it is a better model. We're encouraging moms and dads to talk to other moms and dads. We've tapped a lot of parents to be spokespeople and will be continuing to educate about why marijuana is safer."
Parents who are open to the conversation can be brought along, Aldsworth said.
"Marijuana is universally available," she said, explaining what she tells concerned parents. "And our options here are to place it behind the counter where a responsible businessperson is checking ID or to leave it in the hand of criminals. When you talk to parents about that specific scenario, which is the reality of marijuana in the world today, they understand that we can do the same thing with marijuana that we did with alcohol, only now we have the advantage of having programs to start rapidly reducing youth access."
"We knew 18 months ago that the soccer moms would be a crucial demographic, and we still have an issue with that area," said Way. "That's why Betty Aldworth is working on that, but we're also making inroads with Women for Medical Marijuana, and the League of Women Voters will be having an event. We're making inroads, but it's not showing up in the polling so far."
"We find that people's fallback position is 'How will it affect my kids?' and we've been trying to engage in a public discussion about how regulating and moving it off the streets is a more effective way to reduce teen use than the failed policy of prohibition," said Vicente. "We've been doing billboards and some TV, as well as the face-to-face," he said.
The Amendment 64 campaign is poised, practiced, and ready to roll to victory in November. It has identified weak spots in its support and is working to bolster them. It's up nine or 10 points a little more than six weeks out, but knowing how previous initiative campaigns have played out, expect that margin to shrink as election day draws near. Victory is within reach, but this is going to be a nailbiter.