Opponents of Amendment 64 say legalizing the recreational use of marijuana will make Colorado a drug mecca with a massive industry fueled by laws more liberal than those in the Netherlands.
Proponents say legalization will end the drug war, put the Mexican cartels out of business, and save millions of dollars the police and courts now spend on convicting and incarcerating pot users.
Those were some of the arguments offered at a panel discussion sponsored by the Centennial Institute, a nonprofit think tank headed by John Andrews, former president of the Colorado Senate. About 100 people attended the debate Oct. 15 at the Beckman Center on the grounds of Colorado Christian University in Lakewood.
Neither the institute nor the university takes a political position on the marijuana issue, other initiatives or political candidates.
The timely panel was convened in the spirit of having an open and polite intellectual debate on proposed constitutional Amendment 64, which appears on the November ballot. The Centennial Institute stages two or three such programs a month.
A recent Denver Post poll showed a majority of voters supporting the measure, with 48 percent of respondents in favor and 43 percent opposed; 9 percent were “not sure.” Support had declined from a month ago, when it was 51 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
The panel included proponents Brian Vicente, an attorney and co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, and Tom Tancredo, former Republican congressman from the 6th District.
Opposed to the initiative were Ray Martinez, former mayor of Fort Collins, a former drug enforcement agent and author of the book “The Truth about Marijuana.” Also arguing against legalization was Tom Gorman, a former drug enforcement agent and director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which coordinates local, state and federal drug enforcement activities.
Panelists had five minutes each to make opening statements and five minutes each to rebut the opponents.
"We believe marijuana prohibition is an unequivocal failure,” said Vicente. “It wastes the time of judges, and it wastes the time of police on a fairly benign substance.”
The marijuana laws are funding the drug cartels and contributing to violence on the border, Vicente said. “It would be better to take it away from teens and tax it … . When we made alcohol legal, Al Capone was out of a job. We can put the cartels out of a job.”
Under the proposed amendment to the Colorado Constitution, marijuana would be legal only for people 21 or older. Individuals could have six plants for personal use. The regulatory structure would be similar to alcohol regulation, with marijuana sold from licensed stores with the permission of the community. But if a jurisdiction is against having such stores, it could legally ban them, according to the League of Women Voters.
“The amendment does not allow the public use of marijuana or let people drive while impaired,” Vicente said. “Employers will be able to keep whatever drug-safety or drug-testing policy they prefer.”
But legal marijuana would lead to a host of negative mental and physical health effects, said Martinez, citing a wealth of studies that say marijuana damages the ability to think, affects genetic makeup, damages the immune system, and is 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic than tobacco.
“Most of the kids are now getting it from someone who got it from an existing shop. It impairs kids’ ability to make good decisions,” Martinez said, adding that today’s pot is a lot more potent. “Pot has 15 to 18 percent THC, compared to 1 percent in the ‘60s,” Martinez said.
All that is probably true, and pot is something people should avoid, but that doesn’t mean it should be against the law, Tancredo said.
“I have never smoked. I hope no one does. I don’t think it’s totally benign. I don’t want my grandkids using it. … That’s not the issue. Because, frankly, lots of things are dangerous. Mayor Bloomberg thinks 16 ounces of Coke is dangerous. … Why is Bloomberg in a position to tell adults what to ingest?” Tancredo said.
“I’m not trying to push it, and I don’t own stock in these medical marijuana companies. … I just don’t accept the government can tell me what not to do as an adult … unless you really believe in the nanny state,” Tancredo said.
If Amendment 64 is approved, Colorado would become the primary source of pot for the rest of the country, where it would still be illegal, Gorman said. “We would have the most liberal laws in the world, more liberal than the Netherlands. … Factories are going to make candy and brownies, and I wonder who that will appeal to.”
“Federal law pre-empts state law, and marijuana is still illegal under federal law,” said Gorman, adding that legalizing marijuana in Colorado would be equivalent to “licensing people to commit felonies.”
During the rebuttal phase of the debate, Vicente argued that Amendment 64 would reduce teen use by making it more profitable to sell marijuana legally out of licensed stores. Legalization would also employ thousands of Coloradans and take jobs from cartels, he said.
Tancredo cited studies saying there has been an 11 percent reduction in teen use since the medical marijuana law passed, but an increase in alcohol and binge drinking. “There are a lot of bad things out there, and we should deal with them societally. There is no reason to push marijuana in schools if sellers can sell it legally to adults,” he said.
Under Amendment 64, the first $40 million raised annually by a new excise tax would go to a school-construction fund. Industrial hemp would also be legal.
Using drug money to build schools is not the way to go, Martinez said. In the Poudre School District in Larimer County, discipline problems have increased dramatically since liberalization of the marijuana law, Martinez said.
“Every experiment in legalization of drugs has failed,” Gorman said. "We could be making a tragic mistake. We don’t want to be known as the pot capital of the United States.”
“If all these people come into the state to buy marijuana, I really don’t care,” Tancredo said. “Everybody came to town to buy booze during Prohibition.”
Vicente pointed out that Colorado has a history of tolerance of alcohol and made drinking legal a year before the end of Prohibition. “That’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to lead on this,” he said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners and the mayor of Denver have come out against the measure.
According to the website www.regulatemarijuana.org, proponents include the Colorado Libertarian Party, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Colorado Progressive Coalition, the NAACP Colorado/Montana/Wyoming State Conference, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
In 2000 Colorado voters passed Amendment 20 to allow the use of medical marijuana under the state constitution. In 2006 voters rejected an amendment that would have legalized possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana by persons 21 or over.
Contact Vicky Gits at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.