COLORADO SPRINGS, January 1, 2014 — Today marks the first day that marijuana is legal for recreational use in Colorado, a direct result of Amendment 64 passing on the November 6, 2012 ballot. Some had crusaded for the legalization of marijuana; others saw its legalization as a states’ rights issue. Making pot legal isn’t the end of the story; it’s really only the beginning.
Marijuana was first made illegal in the United States by the Democrats under FDR in 1937. Today, the Democratic Party of Colorado backed the amendment to legalize it in 2012. Some people believe it was an effort to bolster turnout of their voters in the 2012 presidential election. In the end, Amendment 64 got more yes votes than Obama.
The Libertarian Party also believes in the legalization of marijuana, generally under the theory that marijuana should be treated no differently than alcohol. Medical marijuana had already been legal in Colorado when Amendment 64 passed. Since medical marijuana did not require a “prescription” written by a doctor, medical marijuana in practice meant that anyone who wanted it could obtain it legally.
The difference now is that the fig leaf of medicinal purposes is gone. All of the first businesses licensed in Colorado to sell recreational marijuana were those previously licensed to sell medical marijuana. Under home-rule provisions of Colorado law, municipalities can ban businesses selling marijuana within city limits, and many have.
The year’s delay in making recreational use legal was designed to give legislators time to work out implementation of the law. Use by minors is prohibited but enforcement is lacking. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was against Amendment 64, but Denver police are not enforcing the ban on public consumption. There is a ban on driving under the influence of marijuana but the standard is difficult to enforce because current THC tests are unreliable.
Some people, while not necessarily invested in marijuana one way or the other, see legalization as a states’ rights issue and a poke in the eye of the federal government. However, in August the U.S. Justice Department stated that it would not challenge any state that passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana. While this is another example of the Obama administration choosing which laws they want to enforce, conceivably a future government could make an issue of it.
State Senator Kent Lambert, who sits on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, points to a number of issues legalization raises, like marijuana in interstate and international commerce. The manufacture of hemp is also banned at the federal level; could marijuana growers in Colorado grow the plant for hemp? He also notes thatColorado State University — the state’s agricultural school — is prohibited by federal law from doing research into either the medicinal uses of marijuana or the commercial uses of hemp.
This past November, Proposition AA to tax marijuana passed by a 65-35 percent margin. Sin taxes are popular. Most other tax increases on the ballot, such as the infamous Amendment 66 to create a progressive income tax in Colorado, failed. Prop AA placed a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana and an additional 10 percent retail sales tax. Municipalities like Manitou Springs in El Paso County also passed taxes.
The difficulty, Lambert notes, is going to be in the enforcement and regulation.
Just because marijuana is legal does not mean that it will be grown, processed or sold legally. Like alcohol and tobacco, the licensure and control of the product means that some will likely try to circumvent the laws. Consider the second-order effects like handling the money from legal sales. Will business owners be able to deposit the money in a federally-chartered bank and get FDIC insurance on the accounts? Will they be able to process credit card transactions which cross state lines?
For most of the people of Colorado, the legalization of marijuana today will be a non-event. Those who want the drug already have access to it. The real thorny issues have yet to be worked out.
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