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Barry Bortnick

Barry Bortnick

Posted: March 29, 2010 01:09 PM

Will California Lead to a Rocky Mountain High?

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With California ready to vote on legalizing marijuana this November, pot lobbyists in Washington, D.C. say Colorado will be a legal weed battleground come 2012.

"Colorado is a state that looks intriguing for 2012," said Steve Fox, Director of State Campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Colorado's pro-pot fight over the past several years.

The cash -- from both side of the issue -- will likely increase dramatically, especially if California voters pass the marijuana initiative this year.

"There is a short list of states that have the (ballot) initiative process and look ripe for an initiative to tax and regulate marijuana," Fox said.

Colorado is a good testing ground for pot. The state has a ballot initiative process. Colorado also allows people to obtain marijuana for medial needs. In 2000, Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, a ballot measure that let people with certain illnesses and pain to obtain and consume medical marijuana. There are currently 60,000 people on the state's medical marijuana rolls -- a list of those who have received a doctor's recommendation to obtain marijuana for medical needs. The numbers are likely to increase, which could create an insurmountable voting block by 2012.

"The Denver City Council has approved regulating medical marijuana dispensaries," Fox said. "So the concept of taxing and regulating marijuana is not foreign."

Though polling indicates Californians support legalizing pot, no one can say how the vote will fall in November.

"I think the vote in California will be close," Fox said. "But the momentum in the country is showing increased levels of support. We are nearing a tipping point and the consensus is that it does not make sense to keep marijuana illegal."

Fox said his organization is busy gathering pro-pot signatures for a legalization ballot test in Nevada. After that, Colorado is the next likely target.

While many law enforcement agencies, parent groups and Colorado's attorney general oppose all things marijuana; those savvy in the ways of sativa see good things on the horizon.

"I hear that 2012 is the time for Colorado," said Kayvon Khalatbari, owner of Denver Relief, a Denver-based medical marijuana dispensary that handles about 200 patients. "California has always been a few steps ahead of the Colorado (medical marijuana industry). They have been at the forefront in changing on how people think about it."

California voters approved a medical marijuana ballot issue in 1996, and as Khalatbari points out, the Golden State remains intact.

"People now realize that the sky will not fall, and there is a huge amount of taxes to be gained from taxing marijuana similar to alcohol and tobacco."

Though Khalatbari has an established dispensary, he welcomes full legalization.

"If you could legalize it, you would open the market to more people and they could try it and see it is safer than alcohol," he said. "In time, there would be more acceptance of marijuana and that would lead to more medical testing to learn what the potential is for medical marijuana."

But don't expect the law and order types to line up behind the pro-pot movement. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is chief among marijuana critics -- medical or otherwise. He has called marijuana a gateway drug. He has warned that easy access to marijuana has played a major role in the state's high school dropout rates.

"A lot of people say, 'He's just a dinosaur drug warrior,'" Suthers told Denver's Westword newspaper recently. "But I care about future generations, and somebody's got to have their eye on the ball ... has anybody stopped to think the problem is too many kids are coming to school high? That's why we have the dropout rates we do."

But even Suthers knows this matter will come down to a ballot vote in the near future.

"The Attorney General has said that the issue of legalization is an appropriate issue for Colorado to address," said Suthers's spokesperson, Mike Saccone. "But he won't be voting in favor of any legalization."