Opinion: If You Won’t Legalize Marijuana, at Least Prioritize It

April 2012

If you’re driving along I-25 near Sports Authority Field these days, you might notice an unusual billboard. It features a smiling woman with the words: "For many reasons, I prefer...marijuana over alcohol. Does that make me a bad person?" It was erected by a coalition in support of Amendment 64, a ballot measure that, if approved, would regulate marijuana like alcohol. The amendment is backed by many of the usual suspects, including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Sensible Colorado, and the ACLU. But it’s also been endorsed by the Colorado chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the state’s Libertarian Party, and some retired law enforcement officials.

With polls showing voter support for the measure hovering around 50-50, it will be interesting to see how things shake out in November. The guess here is that a last-minute anti-legalization push, along with those on-the-fence voters who just can’t make themselves pull the yes lever, will doom Amendment 64 to a narrow defeat.

This would be unfortunate. While a win for 64 would trigger intense debate and justifiable hand-wringing about how to set up the new regulations, it also would put Colorado at the forefront of a long overdue movement, one that needs to dramatically but rationally re-imagine the utter failure of the “War on Drugs.”

As the recently renewed crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries has shown, law enforcement—from the Department of Justice on down to your local beat cops—has no cogent policy about this. Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to shutter dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, even though the risk these businesses supposedly pose hasn’t been demonstrated even anecdotally, let alone with definitive proof. Instead, officials from Attorney General John Suthers’ office (and others) rationalize their inconsistent actions by parroting lines about marijuana being a Schedule I drug on par with heroin and LSD.

While this is technically true, grouping marijuana with these substances is like equating a Ford Fiesta with a Maserati. In fact, it’s quite easy to argue that if marijuana deserves that level of classification, alcohol deserves it more.

Unfortunately, stigmas die hard, and many people still feel—all evidence to the contrary—that buds do more harm than Bud Lights. Whether Amendment 64 passes or fails, hopefully the discussion about marijuana’s rightful place in society will at least begin to resemble an intelligent and clear-headed conversation, rather than yet another retreat into the hazy comfort of ignorance.