Given that this mid-term election year has coincided with the rollout in Colorado of legalized marijuana, the topic has naturally come up repeatedly on the campaign trail. This has been most apparent in the governor’s race, and if you expected the Republican candidate to be on one side of the issue and the Democrat on the other, you might be surprised.
Predictably enough, GOP challenger Bob Beauprez, running on a firmly conservative platform, has suggested in debates and interviews that if elected he’d seek to repeal the new law. This is despite the fact that Amendment 64 passed with more than 55 percent of the vote in 2012 and still is supported by a majority here and nationwide. Considering Beauprez’s, let’s say, throwback attitudes about the rights of women, minorities, and gays, it’s not terribly surprising that he also fears the reefer.
The more curious opposition to legal weed comes from Governor Hickenlooper. The onetime brewery owner has long voiced his concerns about the law, but during one of last week’s debates (which I attended) he responded to a question about it by saying, after a moment of hemming and hawing, “What the hell; [passing the law] was reckless.”
The governor’s office subsequently issued a statement that said “risky” would’ve been a better descriptor, and it went on to highlight the various ways the state has been carrying out the will of the voters on the law. It was a welcome clarification; unfortunately, the off-the-cuff “reckless” comment—a classic example of Hick’s niggling tendency to stray from his campaign script—ended up making headlines throughout Colorado and nationally.
Just so we’re clear: The approval and subsequent enactment of Amendment 64 unfolded over at least a decade’s worth of activism and education on the part of its backers. Once it became a reality, despite massive amounts of angst emanating from opponents about how legal weed would undermine public safety and cause dangerous spikes in addiction and crime, none of this has come to pass. Through the first six months of 2014, violent crime in Denver was down by 3 percent over 2013, and local dispensary burglaries and robberies—supposedly a grave concern because federal laws still prohibit many of these businesses from dealing in anything other than cash—was at a three-year low. Nationwide, past-month marijuana use by teens 12 to 17, the most vulnerable category of potential users, has remained relatively flat for more than a decade and is actually down since 2011 despite warnings that “sending the message” that marijuana is OK would most severely harm our children.
Adolescent marijuana use will always be among our chief concerns because science has proven all but definitively that even casual use before age 21 (or age 25, depending on the study) can have negative long-term effects on the developing brain. But with that in mind, marijuana producers and distributors have gone to great and still-evolving lengths to keep the drug out of kids’ hands by improving industry practices around testing, labeling, and packaging. Yes, there have been reports of teens getting caught trying to sell marijuana at school, but they got it from their parents or older siblings and friends, not from dispensaries.
In other words, the rollout of Amendment 64 has been anything but reckless. In fact, it’s been demonstrably thoughtful and deliberate, aided in a large part by Colorado’s successful experience with medical marijuana. That doesn’t mean we can’t keep improving the processes, and we are. And while it’s true that recent polls have shown some public disappointment with the execution of the new policies, calls for improvement shouldn’t be confused with calls for repeal. It’s fair to say that most people don’t like how any number of laws are administered; only the anarchic fringe wants them eliminated.
With even more states set to legalize recreational and medical marijuana, if this issue hasn’t yet reached a tipping point, that point is coming soon. That doesn’t mean Colorado should stop tinkering with everything from security to tax structures in order to make the market as safe and productive as possible. As the first place in the world to conduct such a “great social experiment,” as the governor has called it, we have a moral obligation to set an example for whoever comes after us.
Maybe the naysaying about it from these two candidates is simply election-year posturing. That’s fine—so long as whoever’s occupying the governor’s chair in 2015 realizes that it’s his job to nurture and help improve the laws our voters have chosen rather than undermine them.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.