Opinion: City Council Wasting Time Debating Amendment 64 Opt-Out

February 15 2013, 11:49 AM

This week, the Denver City Council announced that it would at least "consider" opting out of Amendment 64 and not allow retail marijuana businesses within city limits. Although an undetermined number of Colorado communities have announced similar plans, such a move in Denver would likely cripple legalization efforts statewide, and, thus, throughout the country.

Such a move is a longshot considering that Colorado's most populous city approved the measure last November by an almost two-to-one margin, and the Council voting to overturn that would represent a drastic "eff-you" to the will of the people. But the fact that it's even being discussed shows how much work remains to be done to see Amendment 64 through to completion.

It's also an example of why some people hate government. The communities that have talked of opting out so far have done so largely on the grounds that marijuana is still banned by federal law, a situation that offers a convenient loophole for smaller towns that simply don't want the hassle of implementing the new regulation.

The truth is, there's only so much Colorado can do with legalization as long the federal ban remains, and to this point the Obama administration has been mostly mum about how it intends to enforce the law. All we know for sure is that the feds won't be targeting casual users. This doesn't help clarify what will happen to anyone who wants to grow or sell legal weed, and therein lies the problem.

Colorado didn't approve Amendment 64 on a whim. It was the culmination of a diligent and thoughful decade-long effort to demystify marijuana, clarify its benefits, deconstruct the myths and stigmas attached to it, and present it to voters as a rational way forward. The Amendment's subtitle, "to regulate marijuana like alcohol," would have been better phrased as, "to regulate marijuana like alcohol, only better."

Concern has arisen from some about the criminal effects of setting up pot shops the same way liquor stores now operate. Law enforcement officials have cited a dramatic rise in burglaries associated with our state's medical marijuana business. But this has happened primarily to homes where marijuana is grown, and to medical dispensaries that have laregly been unable to find banks that will take their business because of the federal ban. Thus, they have a lot of cash on hand—along with their product—which makes them an inviting target for thieves. Moreover, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug, which means the federal government officially considers it to be more harmful than Schedule II substances such as cocaine, opium, and oxycodone, among many others.

This is intuitively absurd. If the government would reschedule marijuana into a more appropriate category, it could then leave the legalization question up to each individual state, where it belongs. Banks would no longer have to worry about federal prosecution for dealing with such businesses, and the criminal incentive would mostly evaporate.

No one's burglarizing liquor stores so they can resell beer. If marijuana shops could conduct business like any other retail sector specializing in products that are expressly made for grown-ups—with all the appropriate security measures built in—the state could get on with collecting tax revenue that amounted to $4.6 million in 2012 (from medical marijuana operations) and has been projected to start at $60 million annually for legal retail stores.

We Coloradans voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana, and we all want to do it in a sensible way. And we elected our political representatives to carry out our wishes, not to punt important issues down the road because figuring them out is too difficult. Debating whether to opt out of a law that a clear majority of citizens support is wasting time that could be better spent on discussing how we grown-ups can best implement it and make it safe and stigma-free for future generations.

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.