Nov 7, 2022 - Business

10 years after Amendment 64, Colorado marijuana advocates celebrate

Illustration of a marijuana leaf on a background with ballot elements.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Ten years ago Sunday, voters approved Amendment 64 to legalize recreational marijuana, paving the way for Colorado to be the first state to allow commercial sales to adults ages 18 and up.

What they're saying: Much of the initial trepidation has been replaced with celebration.

  • "Perhaps the most lasting aspect of [the vote] is we have 19 states … we have several countries that would not have legalized cannabis if not for what happened in Colorado," said Brian Vicente, a co-director of the Yes on 64 campaign, at a recent event. "We showed them that this was possible.”

Why it matters: Colorado's model for regulating legal cannabis — despite early pitfalls — is what's now used by most states across the country. And the anniversary is being hailed by Gov. Jared Polis as "a milestone for Colorado, the country, the world."

  • "We deserve, as Coloradans, to hold our chins a little higher knowing that we led the way out of the dark ages of prohibition towards a brighter future for the United States of America," Polis said at the event.

Flashback: The landmark vote didn't happen suddenly, but served as the culmination of a nearly decade-long campaign by legalization advocates in Colorado, backed by money from the national Marijuana Policy Project.

  • The proponents ran awareness campaigns suggesting it's safer than alcohol and labeled then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a legalization opponent, a "drug dealer" because he founded a brewpub.
  • They tested the waters with a surprisingly successful 2005 ballot measure to remove criminal and civil penalties for small amounts of marijuana possession in Denver — the first city to do so.
  • More ballot questions in subsequent years and a growing acceptance for medical marijuana further laid the groundwork. "Through a combination of creative legal prowess and media savvy, and a willingness or maybe even a glee to buck the system, we were able to spark a decades-long discussion," Vicente said.

What to watch: Five more states will vote on whether to allow recreational cannabis use in Tuesday's midterm election. Oklahoma will follow with a March special election. If all pass, it would mean half the United States would allow legal recreational sales.

  • Closer to home, Colorado Springs — the largest city in the state that doesn't allow recreational pot sales — is voting this week on whether to allow it.

The big picture: The public supports legal marijuana at record high levels — registering 68% in a 2021 Gallup poll.

  • But questions remain. Americans are split 49% to 50% about whether marijuana use is a benefit to society, the polling company found earlier this year.

The other side: Much like 2012 when Amendment 64 hit the ballot, one of today's leading opponents to the Colorado Springs ballot question is Mayor John Suthers, who previously served as the state's Republican attorney general.

  • Suthers is concerned that legal marijuana sales will attract homelessness and crime.

Be smart: In Denver, marijuana crimes were essentially flat from 2012 to 2019. Some studies suggest legalization can increase nonviolent crime, but conclude the costs were offset by tax revenue from sales.

Fun fact: In 1937, the first arrest for violating the Marihuana Tax Act occurred in Denver, Vicente said, so the state that began marijuana enforcement also ended it.


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