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Colo. Voters Legalize Pot, But State Is Anxious Over U.S. Government’s Reaction

November 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
On Election Day, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative making recreational marijuana legal, to be regulated and taxed by the state. But law enforcement officials anticipate regulation will be difficult, even with legalization, because pot is still illegal at the federal level. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to a post-elect story.

Voters in two states, Colorado and Washington, approved ballot initiatives allowing recreational use of marijuana.

Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio reports from Denver, a city that currently has more medical marijuana stores than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Her story is another in our new collaboration with public media partners across the country in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.

STEVE HORWITZ, Ganja Gourmet: These are all topicals here. And they’re made with marijuana. And we have had people say they’re really helping.

MEGAN VERLEE, Colorado Public Radio: Steve Horwitz sells a broad variety of medical marijuana products in his South Denver store Ganja Gourmet.

STEVE HORWITZ: All kinds of chocolates and cookies and brownies.

MEGAN VERLEE: His is just one of 500 such dispensaries which have opened over the last four years, ever since Colorado started allowing stores to sell the drug for medical uses.

Since then, a large market has flourished, and more than 100,000 residents now carry physician-recommended cards allowing them to buy the drug.

But passage of a ballot initiative known as Amendment 64 will likely take retail marijuana to a whole new level, since presumably anyone who can now buy alcohol will be allowed to buy the drug.

Horwitz says, almost as soon as the votes were counted last week, he began to hear from potential customers.

STEVE HORWITZ: And then, all day long, the phone was ringing off the hook. And the same thing. It’s all — they’re pot tourists. They want to come to Colorado and they want to do like you can do in Amsterdam.

MEGAN VERLEE: But those would-be high fliers probably shouldn’t start booking plane tickets yet. Horwitz and others in the medical marijuana industry are taking the cautious approach.

STEVE HORWITZ: Nothing is going to change until we see what the state comes up with, the regulations the state comes up with, and sees what the federal government says about the regulations the state comes up with.

MEGAN VERLEE: The amendment removes criminal penalties for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults over 21. But it also calls on the state legislature to determine how the drug will be sold, distributed, and taxed.

Lawmakers will have to do all of that while remaining mindful that anything they do is illegal under federal drug.

Gov. John Hickenlooper knows passage of the amendment puts the state on a collision course with the federal government, which still regards possession and sale of marijuana as a crime. That’s why one of the first steps he took last week was to set up a call with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, D-Colo.: But he was mostly listening. He was trying to get what we thought might be issues, problems, how we were going to respond to one part or another. So he was more in a listening mode, just gathering information.

MEGAN VERLEE: But Colorado officials aren’t just waiting for the federal response. They’re putting together a task force to research the best way to create a retail marijuana system which would regulate the growing and selling of the product.

The result will be introduced in next year’s legislative session. Despite opposing the measure, Hickenlooper says he wont hinder it now.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Well, it’s a democracy, right? In a democracy, when people vote for things that you may not agree with, if you’re the elected leader, you have still got to implement them.

So, we’re going to do that in the most responsible way we can, with every cautionary procedure that we can find. But, in the state of Colorado, marijuana’s going to be legal.

 

MEGAN VERLEE: Even supporters of the measure seemed surprised by their victory. The backers were a collection of local and national groups who have tried and failed at earlier attempts for legalization.

Brian Vicente is with Sensible Colorado, a group advocating for marijuana reform.

BRIAN VICENTE, Sensible Colorado: What we are interested in doing is establishing Colorado as a model for effective adult marijuana sales. We want to prove to the state and to the world that we can tax these sales, take them off the street corner. And we’re talking about a tremendous amount of tax revenue that’s coming out of the hands of cartels and going into our state coffers.

SAM KAMIN, University of Denver: What it seems like the marijuana law reform folks are doing is not trying to win one big fight, but to win lots of little ones.

MEGAN VERLEE: Sam Kamin is a constitutional law professor at the university of Denver. He says drug reform groups have decided to concentrate on changing state laws, rather than the federal law. He says its similar to the state-by-state approach being taken by gay marriage proponents.

SAM KAMIN: One of the ideas of federalism is states as laboratories of ideas, that we find out what good policy is by trying it in some places, not all places. Those people that don’t want to don’t have to try it. Marijuana certainly seems to fit that model pretty well.

MEGAN VERLEE: Some Colorado members of Congress are trying to legitimize this patchwork approach by adding a clause to the Controlled Substances Act that would give state-level marijuana laws preemption over federal policy.

SAM KAMIN: That would give us this sort of quilt of states that, if you want the federal government to come in and enforce marijuana laws, we will have them in. If you want to keep them out, you can keep them out through state law. We will see what kind of traction that gets.

MEGAN VERLEE: One of the fears supporters have is that the Drug Enforcement Agency could raid any store that dares to open, or the Justice Department could simply sue to invalidate Colorado and Washington’s amendments. Vicente says his side is ready for that.

BRIAN VICENTE: We have, you know, attorneys that have worked on this for years, including myself, and we will be prepared to litigate this on behalf of Colorado voters, if needed.

MEGAN VERLEE: Vicente is hopeful that the federal government will hold off and allow Colorado to apply its existing medical marijuana regulations to a new recreational retail system.

BRIAN VICENTE: They have a very strict level of oversight which we call seed-to-sale tracking. So there are cameras following the movements of these plants from seed to sale. And, ultimately, then they go to the consumer. We really have found that this system has worked quite well.

And it really hasn’t led to any increased security or criminal risks in the community.

MEGAN VERLEE: Police Commander Jerry Peters of the North Metro Task Force has a very different view of what has happened since medical marijuana stores started opening four years ago.

JERRY PETERS, North Metro Drug Task Force: We have seen a tremendous increase in crime. We have seen more home invasion robberies. We have seen more dispensary robberies. We see marijuana being trafficked through vehicles, through the U.S. mail, through Federal Express.

MEGAN VERLEE: Peters says his officers in the suburbs north of Denver average five to six marijuana investigations a week. And even the vast majority of the legal grow sites they go to are out of compliance. Full legalization, he says, will just make that worse.

JERRY PETERS: When the state tries to regulate it, no matter what — whether it’s going to a dispensary or a storefront, is you can’t inventory it. There’s nobody there at the time of harvest to say we have taken two ounces, and so that two ounces is going to this dispensary.

So, what happens is two ounces is maybe reported, but two pounds is taken off and diverted someplace else. It happens all the time.

MEGAN VERLEE: In addition to potential criminal problems, Peters worries about legalization’s social cost.

JERRY PETERS: You’re going to see youth use rise dramatically. You’re going to see people driving under the influence of marijuana dramatically increase.

MEGAN VERLEE: Colorado officials are developing what Governor Hickenlooper calls a sharp-edged public information campaign to warn about the dangers of marijuana. But, in the end, the governor sees legalization as a result of Colorado’s success in recent years at attracting an influx of younger, more liberal residents.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: This is part of what you get from that youth component that maybe isn’t — wouldn’t be your first choice to have happen in your state. But I don’t think it’s going to do long-term damage.

MEGAN VERLEE: Dispensary owner Horwitz is convinced that, now that voters have spoken, legalized recreational marijuana sales are inevitable.

STEVE HORWITZ: It’s like the cat is out of the bag. I don’t think you could put it back in right now.

MEGAN VERLEE: Still, he, like everyone else in the state, will be watching closely to see how the federal government responds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can find a slide show of images of marijuana advocates around the country, plus watch a video profile of a Denver pot dispensary.