Angered by a pair of bills aiming at regulating the state's burgeoning medical marijuana industry just signed into law by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), one group of medical marijuana advocates has announced plans to get a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in 2012. But there is already another legalization initiative filed with state officials and ready to go.
The initiative effort in the news this week is called Legalize 2012, and is being led by the Boulder-based education and advocacy group Cannabis Therapy Institute (CTI), which is deeply unhappy with the new regulations provoked by a massive boom in dispensaries in the past year or so. "The problem we have in Colorado is that the medical marijuana amendment didn't set up a distribution system, and now, 10 years later, that flawed language is coming back to haunt us," said institute spokesperson Laura Kriho. "The only way to cure the problems patients are now having is across the board legalization for all adults. It will simplify things for law enforcement, patients, and people who aren't patients."
Kriho had a litany of complaints about the recently approved medical marijuana regulation legislation. "Anybody convicted of a marijuana felony in the past is not going to be able to be a dispensary owner anymore. Dispensaries are not allowed to compensate doctors or patients. The local bans on dispensaries that will be found unconstitutional, but who knows when. So many hoops for dispensaries to jump through, and they can still deny a license," she recited. "The stated intent was to put a big chunk of the dispensaries out of business, and I think it will," she predicted.
"On the patient side, they're requiring three different follow-up visits to the doctor, plus registration fees," Kriho said. "For most of the patients I know, coming up with $90 for a license and $100 for a doctor's exam was the limit to what they could afford. If you push it up higher, people won't be able to afford it. "
The initiative effort is just getting under way, said Kriho. "We're just in the process of getting it going, we're forming the language committee," she said. "It's important to us to make sure the language is acceptable to all the people in Colorado. With a year and a half to write this, we should be able to get a good consensus. We have a unique opportunity now -- people have tasted that freedom and had it yanked away by the government."
"They were upset with the regulation bills and have some major issues with them," said Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, which lobbied for some of the provisions in the measures. "But we are committed to working with them. We do have patient access issues here in Colorado -- for example, patients with severe depression or PTSD can't currently access it under state law. If we just legalize it for all adults, those individuals would have access."
"We might have some philosophical differences with groups like Sensible Colorado," said Kriho, "but we have to remember the end goal: keeping people out of jail."
"We need to agree on what we're going to agree on and work together on these issues," said Vicente. "CTI, Sensible Colorado, and SAFER have enough common ground that I'm optimistic we can work together."
"I think we can build an effective coalition," said Jessica Corrie, an attorney, Republican, mother, and nationally known legalization advocate. "We have everybody from evangelical Christians to hard-core labor activists. There are some concerns about the radical fringe of this movement, but we can't ignore them and shouldn't ignore them. I've seen many people with passionate radical views come into the fold. In the eyes of most voters, this was all about tie-dyed hippies, but now it's people like me. The effort should be to bring people together to the extent it's possible."
"I support any effort to change marijuana laws so adults are able to make the safer choice, but this effort seems short-sighted and unlikely to garner the support of the voters," said an uncharacteristically tight-lipped Mason Tvert, whose SAFER (Safer Alternatives For Enjoyable Recreation) ran the successful 2005 Denver legalization initiative and the 2006 statewide legalization initiative that won 39% of the vote.
Tvert and SAFER already have a legalization initiative drafted and filed with the secretary of state's office. Known as Initiative 47, the measure would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, three seedlings, and three mature pot plants by people 21 or older. It also calls for licensed marijuana cultivation and sales outlets, and it calls for a maximum tax of $50 an ounce.
"CTI decided to announce this because they think there should be no tax on marijuana," said Tvert. "The initiative we filed has a tax of $50 an ounce at most and allows licensed production and distribution, no penalties for adult use or possession, and people can grow up to six plants. That seems to me like a proposal that will be met with support by most Coloradans."
Tvert is willing to put that to the test at the ballot box. "We have every intention of running a ballot measure," he said. "The language is approved, the title is set, but we're holding off until 2012. We shouldn't have any problem getting through that process again."
If there is one thing everyone seems to agree on, it is that victory is within grasp. "We're looking for freedom for the whole plant, untaxed and unregulated as much as possible," said Kriho. "Legalize 2012 comes from that. We have to take this next step, and we have to get ready now. Legalization is polling 49% now and will be over 50% by 2012."
"I think the prospects are very good," said Corrie. "If you look at the 2006 initiative, legalization outperformed the Republican gubernatorial candidate, and we saw a dramatic shift in terms of voter demographics in 2008. Now it's polling at 49%, eight points more than any statewide candidate for office, and when you ask voters if marijuana should be regulated like alcohol and taxed, there is a jump of five or six points, which is a reflection of dire budgetary circumstances. That's where the Republicans we see on board are coming from. They think marijuana is bad, but they're tired of paying outrageous tax bills, and given some persuading that marijuana is safer than alcohol, I think they are reachable."
Married women with children have historically been one of the toughest demographics for marijuana law reform, but having activists like Corrie on board may be able to swing some of the worried mom vote. "Younger mothers worry that if we legalize marijuana, it's an endorsement of marijuana use," said Corrie. "My response is to ask whether prohibition stopped us from using marijuana. We mothers are the most powerful tool for preventing our children from engaging in dangerous behaviors, and so many women across the ideological spectrum have handed government bureaucrats the responsibility for taking care of our children," she explained.
"In speaking to older Republican women, many of them were actively involved in DARE in an effort to be the best parents they could be. They want to feel like there was some good in that, and I tell them they did the best they could with the information available at the time, but now it's time to work together with the best information to protect our kids," Corrie said. "This isn't a conversation you have in 10 minutes. This is a process of getting people to rethink ideas and concepts and political views, and that can be difficult, especially when people are forced to admit the government wasn't correct."
"I think Colorado is ready right now," Vicente laughed when asked if an initiative could pass in 2012. "But 2012 is when we'll actually have the resources."
Still, Kriho and CTI aren't putting all their eggs in one basket. "We are working with Roger Christie and his THC Ministry to bring on a cannabis religious revival," she said. "The Colorado constitution specifically protects method of worship, and we're confident the THC Ministry qualifies as a legitimate church. We may be forming branch ministries, like the church sanctuary movement. It's about protecting patients. Sincere religious practitioners should form a church to get protection," she said.
But if Colorado's marijuana community can keep from flying apart, in a couple of years, patients and recreational pot smokers alike might have made the entire state a sanctuary, through the ballot box.