Jan 28, 2022 - News

Colorado Springs ballot measure is a test case for marijuana popularity

Marijuana moving illustration
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Colorado Springs, home to five military outposts and the religious right, is poised to serve as a national barometer for where conservatives stand on recreational marijuana sales.

Driving the news: A citizen-led organization filed language this week for a November ballot measure that will ask residents to legalize retail cannabis sales and impose a 5% sales tax with revenue going toward public safety, mental health and veterans programs.

Why it matters: Colorado Springs β€” the state's second largest city β€” is the most prominent holdout against marijuana sales in the state known as the pot pioneer.

  • Given the community's reputation, cannabis advocates at the national and state levels tell Axios the measure is a broader test case for marijuana. "I'll definitely be watching it," said Michael Correia at the National Cannabis Industry Association, which is pushing for federal legalization.
  • "What it will demonstrate is that this is really a settled issue across the country, that people are comfortable with recreational marijuana being in their communities," says Anthony Carlson, the measure's campaign manager.

Between the lines: The effort comes 10 years after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana and allow for retail sales, which began two years later in 2014.

  • Colorado Springs voters approved the measure by roughly 3,000 votes, but the language let local elected officials determine whether to permit retail sales. The city council decided against putting the question on the ballot in 2020.
  • So even though it's legal to use marijuana in Colorado Springs, residents must go elsewhere to buy it.

Zoom in: From the start, the marijuana sales campaign β€” dubbed Your Choice Colorado Springs β€” is crafting its pitch with conservatives in mind.

  • The argument is fiscal: The city would reap millions of dollars in tax revenue that currently goes to other places, such as nearby Manitou Springs, the only municipality in the county that permits retail sales.
  • The ballot language would not allow more stores, but permit existing medical marijuana retailers to also sell recreational cannabis to adults 21 and older.
  • The destination of the estimated $10 to $15 million in tax revenue also is designed to get broad support, organizers acknowledge.

What's next: To put the measure on the 2022 ballot, the campaign will need signatures from roughly 30,000 city voters. Then it needs to win in November.

  • The campaign acknowledges this is a difficult task, particularly because Mayor John Suthers is an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization.
  • "I don't think government should promote things that are contrary to the public interest simply because they can produce revenue," Suthers told the Colorado Springs Independent last year. "I've just always had a fundamental position here that government promoting drug use for the purpose of getting high is not good public policy."

The big picture: Colorado hauled in $423.5 million in state tax revenue in 2021 from marijuana sales, another record year, according to figures released this month.

  • Recreational sales are allowed in more than 90 municipalities across the state.
  • In 2020, Denver brought in $35 million in pot taxes.

This story first appeared in the Axios Denver newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard. Subscribe here.

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