Colorado Amendment 64 - Marijuana History In the Making
by Greg Ellison
On a recent sunny day in Denver, I had the pleasure to interview Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, one of the driving forces behind Colorado Amendment 64, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol. Working for an effective drug policy is their tagline, and like an increasing number of social leaders, the nonprofit organization Sensible Colorado espouses the perspective that drug use in society is not a crime issue but a health problem. Their mission is to reduce incarceration and crime, with the hope that less money drained by the courts and police equals more resources for healthcare and treatment.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today Brian, and I wanted to start by asking what lead to the formation of Sensible Colorado?
I co-founded Sensible Colorado in 2004. We were united by the fact that we all thought the drug war was a failure, and that Colorado needed to consider other options, particularly around marijuana. This is what drove the original folks. There has been a lot of growth, and a lot of twists and turns since then. Frankly, it was not a popular issue to work on in 2004. You weren’t taken seriously if you worked in marijuana reform or medical marijuana. Because we pushed through that, it made us a little tougher. We’re taken a lot more seriously in terms of our lobbying efforts.
Can you explain for the Nugs.com readers the genesis behind Amendment 64?
Part of our core mission when we founded Sensible Colorado in 2004, we knew that we wanted to try to pass a law in Colorado to tax and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and over. So a lot of the work over the years has been trying to work towards that, either through public education or actual campaigns to change the law, to get the public use to the idea that we need marijuana change, and get them use to voting on the issue. About 18 months ago, Mason Tvert from SAFER convened a core group of people to work on this campaign specifically, and work on getting the language, the funding, and talking to people in and out of state. The two of us tried to pull people together to create a big coalition, because as you alluded to, we need a big coalition to win.
How would this impact current MMJ dispensaries and red card holders?
At the forefront, we don’t actually change any of the current marijuana laws, Amendment 20 and House Bill 1284. All these laws that apply to patients, caregivers, and dispensaries would remain in place. What we’re doing is creating a different licensing scheme for adults 21 and over. If the current MMC’s or other business owners want to apply, they can get a license to have stores to sell to adults 21 and over. We incorporated input from dozens of medical marijuana center owners, patients and caregivers into the writing of the amendment. So we really thought very carefully because we don’t want to endanger those groups in any way and we don’t want to force them to be recreational retail suppliers, unless they want to. We are essentially giving them the option to apply for that additional license. And as per their feedback, and also because we felt like it was the right thing to do, we really incorporated a number of positive steps for them in the language. Preexisting MMC’s are going to have lower licensing fees than a new competitor entering the market. Their fees are kept to $500, which is quite reasonable. And we also said in terms of any competitive licensing process, MMC’s should be given preference. We’re encouraging them to apply if they want to, but we’re not forcing them. We believe their business will expand tenfold.
Assuming passage in November, how will Amendment 64 be enacted?
We built in a specific timeline. When this passes in November, within a month or two the criminal laws will officially change. That means under state law adults can have up to an ounce of marijuana and grow six plants in the privacy of their home, and cannot be prosecuted under state law. The piece that’s going to take a little while longer is the retail licenses. Those are not required to be given out by the state government until 2014. So there’s going to be 14 months where essentially two things are going on. One, the department of revenue is going to be creating rules for this new industry, creating an application process, all that stuff, but they won’t be actually giving out licenses until 2014, so 2013 will be largely rule making. I was on the department of revenues board that created the rule for medical marijuana. If you get the right people in the room, you can get things done to make the system work, but it just takes time. It’s a lengthy process and it’s the first time in history that this has been really taken head on. That’s the first piece, the second piece that’s important about the time frames is that we built in this 14 month widow because we really want to have breathing time to figure out what the federal government or potentially the state government is going to do after Colorado voters say they want this system in place, and regulation is better than prohibition. If the federal government says if you open a retail store, we’re going to throw you in jail, we want to know that so we can discourage the state from issuing those licenses and discourage our clients. We want to have that time to take the pulse of the government.
Will passage of Amendment 64 prohibit localities in Colorado from banning dispensaries or future retail shops?
No we are not changing medical marijuana laws. Communities can still ban medical marijuana shops. Communities will be able to opt out of the shops and the grows, but they can’t say adults in our area can’t have marijuana, because we change the law. The way we structure this language, I put a lot of thought into it. Local government can ban, but they can only do it at even year general elections. Those are the elections that we tend to win because more people turn out. It’s more reflective of how the population feels. Bans can happen in two ways, the town council or city council can be like "we’re banning." That will still be possible with retail shops. But what we’ve seen with medical, they don’t usually ban, they usually take it to the people at some obscure election time. That will be impossible under Amendment 64. Over time these communities that have banned medical marijuana dispensaries are going to realize they are missing out on tax revenue and job creation. But it’s slow, we’ve had prohibition for 80 plus years, we’re working our way from prohibition to regulation.
Are there any provisions in the amendment for industrial hemp production?
Are you aware that our amendment actually legalizes hemp? It’s a crucial piece. There are three things that our initiative does, one is removing criminal penalties, two is setting up the licensing structure for marijuana sales, and three is legalizing industrial hemp at the state level. Basically this is a very simple provision, it’s only one sentence. It says the state legislature shall regulate the production, sale, and distribution of industrial hemp by 2014. Then it leaves it up to the state to jump into that regulation to allow our farmers to grow. It would make Colorado the first state in the country to do this, and it would really help our farmers. This hasn’t been getting that much play, but we’re really trying to get the word out there because it polls very well and people need to know what they’re voting for.
Is it possible that the powers that be are more fearful of hemp production, as opposed to cannabis legalization, since hemp will challenge a number of major industries?
It’s possible. I’m not sure that the people at the top in federal government or big business have really thought through hemp that much. I know they sort of suppressed it historically, but I honestly think they probably don’t realize what impact it would have on the country. I think their focus is preventing adults from using marijuana. Its turf protection in that the federal and state governments have a criminal justice system in place that relies upon having marijuana and other drugs illegal. A lot of law enforcement jobs, a lot of prison guards are employed because marijuana is illegal.
It seems inevitable, so looking ahead on the national level, what happens when a majority of states have passed medicinal marijuana laws?
I think when that point is reached, there will be some tough discussions at the federal level about what to do, and I think that will be driven largely by our federal representatives now representing medical cannabis states. I generally agree that 25 or 26 states is a tipping point, but also if we can pick up really populated states like New York, Illinois, and Ohio, there will just be more congress people in D.C. fighting for this.