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Colorado Goes Green: Passing of Amendment 64 Raises Questions, Concerns

(Lezlie Sterling/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Fish and Game wardens search for illegal marijuana farms in the Sierra Foothills, October 16, 2012. Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 on November 6th, making recreational marijuana legal in the state.

While many eyes were glued to T.V. screens following the presidential election, an important side story was developing with the passing of Amendment 64.

Amendment 64 is contentious among voters due to the myriad of issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana. Amendment 64 would effectively end marijuana prohibition in Colorado. Local and state government would have the ability to regulate the sale and taxation of marijuana to people over the age of 21. The amendment would end the criminalization of marijuana possession for small amounts of marijuana. Essentially, the amendment would regulate marijuana in the same fashion as alcohol.

A similar 2006 amendment failed to pass. The key difference with this year’s ballot amendment is that it would not only decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana but would also regulate the cultivation of industrial hemp, a widespread, and environmentally friendly agricultural crop. This would be a crucial step towards complete legalization of marijuana.

Arguments in support of marijuana legalization range from the fact that it will create tax revenue, to the fact that law enforcement has unfairly imprisoned minorities under current legislation for marijuana possession. According to the Marijuana Research Project over 210,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in the past 25 years. According to the F.B.I Center for Crime Research a person is arrested every 42 seconds for marijuana possession. One main bone of contention is the disproportionate arrests of minorities such as blacks and latinos for possession. Despite lower rates of use among blacks and latinos they constitute high percentages of arrests. During the years of 1986 to 2010 latinos were arrested for marijuana possession at 1.5 times the rate of whites, while blacks were arrested at 3.1 times the rate of whites. Also according to Colorado state records, during the same time period, blacks were 3.8% of Colorado’s residents, but 10.5% of marijuana arrests. While latinos accounted for 19% of the state’s citizens and 25% of arrests for marijuana. The key here is that while actual use rates among these minorities is lower, arrests are higher.

The punishments for possession are also unfair, according to proponents of Amendment 64. The federal government classifies the drug as “schedule 1.” Other drugs on this list, the highest possible categorization of controlled substances, include MDMA and heroin. Colorado law has made marijuana possession a Class 2 Petty Offense. In county courts marijuana possession carries a $100 fine. In municipal courts, however, judges can fine offenders $300, impose $50 per month in probation fees, require regular drug testing, and sentence the defendant to jail for several days.

Proponents of Amendment 64 focus on the tax revenue it could create. Ads, that have aired in Colorado, promote the measure with the slogan, “Strict Regulation. Fund Education.” State analysts project somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year. An economist whose study was funded by a pro-pot group projects a $60 million boost by 2017. Skeptics abound on this particular point, however, saying that the legalization of marijuana will only create expensive bureaucracies to regulate the use and sale of marijuana as well as creating an expensive legal battle with the national government.

Those against Amendment 64 include Governor John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Education Association to name a few. This creates an interesting conflict of interest as tax money would go to education and the Colorado Education Association has openly opposed this possible source of revenue. Hickenlooper explained his opposition the measure, “Colorado is known for many great things –- marijuana should not be one of them, Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK.”

Opponents of the amendment oppose it on moral grounds as well as the simple feasibility of its application and enforcement. Due to the fact that the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 highly controlled substance the legalization of its sale and taxation by the state of Colorado would create messy gridlock. In a recent teleconference call former Drug Enforcement Agency administrators and directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy reiterated that even if Amendment 64 passed marijuana would still remain illegal in the eyes of the government and this conflict could create a “Constitutional showdown.”

Former D.E.A administrator John Bensinger, who moderated the teleconference call, summed up the argument of opponents of the measure in terms of public safety, “ there is a bigger danger that touches every one of us — legalizing marijuana threatens public health and safety. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, drug driving arrests, accidents, and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Drug treatment admissions are up and the number of teens using this gateway drug is up dramatically.”

As of 9 p.m. on Tuesday, November 6th evening the ballot amendment 64 was passed by a 53-47 vote. The laws surrounding possession and use among ages below 21 will not change as a result of the passing of the amendment. Also, as stated above, many questions arise from the passing of the Amendment, including how the federal government will react.

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