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Colorado Poised to Regulate Marijuana for Adult Use While Feds Cling to Prohibition

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Today the Colorado Secretary of State announced that a marijuana legalization initiative has qualified for the 2012 ballot, ensuring voters will have a chance to make history this November by ending marijuana prohibition in the state. Proponents of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol are emboldened by recent polls indicating that a slight majority of Colorado voters support the legal regulation of marijuana for adult use.

The campaign initially fell 2,400 valid signatures short, triggering a 15-day "cure period" allowed under state law to gather the additional signatures needed to qualify. The campaign kicked into high gear and obtained another 14,000 total signatures, surpassing their own goal of 9,000. Moreover, the volunteer efforts during the cure period netted more signatures than the paid effort -- a good sign of strong grassroots support in the state.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol -- now known as Amendment 64 - would eliminate criminal penalties statewide for adults who possess up to one ounce of marijuana. It also encourages the Department of Revenue or local jurisdictions to devise a system of regulation and taxation for the production, distribution and retail sale of marijuana to adults.

Nationally, public support for making marijuana legal has shifted dramatically in the last two decades, especially in the last few years. For the first time, a recent Gallup poll has found that 50 percent of Americans support making marijuana legal, with only 46 percent opposed. Majorities of men, 18 to 29-year-olds, 30 to 49-year-olds, liberals, moderates, Independents, Democrats, and voters in Western, Midwestern and Eastern states now support legalizing marijuana.

Yet, over the past year, the federal government has relentlessly attacked the implementation of medical marijuana regulatory systems in many of the 16 states that allow for the medical use of marijuana. In fact, on this very day, as the Secretary of State announced the qualification of the non-medical initiative, 23 medical marijuana dispensary owners were forced to shut their doors.

The specifics of Amendment 64 have been designed with this reality in mind. It is not a mandate to implement a legal regulatory approach in every Colorado jurisdiction, but it does open the door for the Department of Revenue to do so. If voters decide to legalize marijuana this November, lessons learned from regulating the medical marijuana industry will provide valuable insights. The Colorado Department of Revenue will know better than any agency in the country how to implement a legal regulatory framework that is as fed-proof as possible.

The amendment is a moderate approach to marijuana legalization, as it places limits on possession and does not allow for public use. It is also important to note that the proposal does not impact current traffic and workplace safety laws. But by simply allowing adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, the proposed law will compel law enforcement and Colorado's judiciary system to redirect their resources to combat serious crime. This is the essence of legalization.

Amendment 64 puts forth the question of whether this widely-used commodity can be regulated in ways that enhance public safety, public health and the state's bottom line. It begs whether we should continue to spend upwards of $80 million as a state to prohibit a substance that can bring in up to $40 million annually -- a gross savings of $120 million. Ultimately, it drives home the point that prohibition is more harmful than the drug itself.

Prohibitionists often cite the "gateway theory" -- yet the science simply does not support it. To say that teenage marijuana use leads to hard drug use and addiction is like saying riding a tricycle as a toddler leads to higher incidents of fatal bike accidents for pre-teens. There is a correlation, but no proof of causation. In fact, the evidence shows that most people who try marijuana as a teen don't become habitual marijuana users, let alone users of other "hard" drugs.

Marijuana prohibition, under the current system, is the primary gateway into the criminal justice system for our youth. After seventy-five years of sensationalized rhetoric, typified by "Reefer Madness" and its progeny, law enforcement and educators have lost credibility in the eyes of our youth. We should ask the same question as our allies in Washington state, where voters will also decide whether to legalize marijuana this November: "Isn't it time for a new approach?"

Art Way is Colorado Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.