The Observer recently caught up with the Yes on 64 campaign’s advocacy director Betty Aldworth, who took some time to answer a few of TCO’s questions on the high-profile effort to decriminalize marijuana.
TCO: A 2006 effort to legalize marijuana in Colorado failed by a lopsided 60-40 margin. Why should observers expect a different result this year?
Aldworth: Amendment 64 is a very different initiative than the one run in 2006. The 2006 initiative was a single sentence that made the possession of marijuana legal for individuals 21 years of age or older, and it would have done nothing to eliminate the underground marijuana market.
Amendment 64 is far more comprehensive. It will replace the underground market with a system in which the production and sale of marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol. It also allows for the legal cultivation, processing, and distribution of industrial hemp, a popular and useful agricultural crop on which Colorado farmers can corner the market.
Perhaps more importantly, public support for ending marijuana prohibition in Colorado has grown significantly since 2006. So much work has been done here in the last seven years to reach out to voters and educate them about the issue – particularly the fact that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and that there are more effective and less wasteful ways we could be handling marijuana. As a result, there is more support for reform than ever before.
Over the last 15 years, support for regulating marijuana like alcohol has risen about 1 point per year, and it has been growing even faster over the past two years. Polls over the past year have found about 48 to 52 percent of Colorado voters are in favor ending marijuana prohibition, and just about 38 to 42 percent are opposed. Our goal is to maintain the momentum and keep the public dialogue going.
TCO: How do you respond to critics who say that this initiative has more to do with boosting President Obama’s re-election prospects (by turning out college-aged voters) than it does expanding personal freedom?
Aldworth: We have one goal this election year, and that’s to end marijuana prohibition in Colorado. There is one school of thought that says having Amendment 64 on the ballot will boost pro-Obama turnout. There is another that suggests most of the voters who turn out will not want to vote for Obama because of how disappointing he has been on the marijuana issue. It’s very possible that Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson will become an enticing option for many of them. A poll conducted in April by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that many voters in the 18-29 year old demographic are actually, without recognizing it, more libertarian than liberal. Ultimately, young voters want solutions, not failures, and there is no government policy that has been a bigger failure than marijuana prohibition.
TCO: Your opponents have argued that the introduction of medicinal marijuana in Colorado has made the drug more accessible to minors. Won’t full-scale legalization exacerbate that problem?
Aldworth: Unfortunately, our opponents tend to ground their arguments in anecdotes and not facts. According to the latest report from our federal government, marijuana use among Colorado high school students actually decreased from 2009 to 2011, which is the period in which the state began regulating medical marijuana. Meanwhile, use has increased nationwide. Our current policy of prohibition is the least effective way to keep marijuana out of the hands of teens. Government surveys have found that marijuana is not only universally available to high school students, but easier to obtain than alcohol or tobacco. That’s because illegal drug dealers do not ask for ID. If we truly want to keep marijuana away from teens, we should put it behind the counter and require proof of age to purchase it. There will be strict penalties for selling marijuana to minors, just as there are with alcohol and tobacco, and the penalties for giving marijuana to minors remain the same.
TCO: Opponents claim that suspensions and expulsions in Colorado schools have spiked since the medical marijuana boom in 2009. Is that true? And if it is, is it attributable, as they suggest, to marijuana?
Aldworth: Our opponents base this argument on anecdotal evidence and inconclusive data. For example, they rely on statistics that include all drug violations and not just those involving marijuana. As I mentioned earlier, marijuana use among high school students in Colorado has actually dropped significantly since 2009, which is when Colorado began to regulate medical marijuana.
TCO: Prohibitionists often brand marijuana as a “gateway drug,” arguing that while marijuana itself isn’t terribly dangerous, it leads to the use of other more dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. How do you respond to that claim?
Aldworth: The so-called “gateway theory” has been debunked repeatedly by reputable research organizations ranging from the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine to the RAND Corporation. If any “gateway” exists, it’s the gateway into an illegal marketplace through which we are forcing marijuana consumers. Our current system keeps marijuana in the underground market, where it sold alongside other much more harmful drugs that marijuana consumers might never otherwise encounter.
Virtually everyone who tries marijuana has tried alcohol first, so if there is a “gateway drug,” it’s alcohol. We know from experience that making it illegal does far more harm than good, and it’s time we apply that knowledge to marijuana.
TCO: When Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000, critics of the effort argued that it was a “Trojan Horse” for full scale marijuana legalization. What do you say to people who see Amendment 64 as a “gateway initiative” that will open the door to decriminalizing harder drugs like cocaine?
Aldworth: Amendment 64 deals with marijuana, period. That’s what we proposed; that’s what 175,000 Coloradans signed petitions to put on the ballot; that’s what will be voted on. With all of the evidence showing that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and that regulating it would be a more effective means of controlling it than prohibition, it’s no wonder that opponents resort to such baseless claims and scare tactics.
TCO: Even if Amendment 64 is approved, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. So doesn’t it make more sense to take this fight to Congress rather than state ballots?
Aldworth: Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to repeal alcohol prohibition prior to it being repealed at the federal level, and they can do the same when it comes to marijuana. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution or any other law that prohibits Colorado from taking this step forward.
Our state’s current medical marijuana system demonstrates that marijuana can in fact be regulated at the state and local levels. If Amendment 64 is adopted, adults 21 and older will no longer face any state or local penalties for possessing and growing limited amounts of marijuana, and federal officials have stated publicly that they can only enforce federal law when it comes to the cultivation and trafficking of very large amounts. Once marijuana is legal for adults, we certainly hope the federal government will not interfere in our state’s efforts to regulate and control it.
TCO: Politics often makes strange bedfellows, and marijuana legalization is no exception. Here in Colorado, supporters of reform run the political gamut, from Jared Polis on the left to Tom Tancredo on the right. Any chance we might see those two in a “Yes on 64” ad this cycle?
Aldworth: Congressman Polis and former Congressman Tancredo are both vocal supporters of ending marijuana prohibition, but as of now there is no plan to feature them in a “Yes on 64” ad. It’s a long time until November, though, and we would be honored and thrilled to have that kind of joint expression of support.
TCO: Voters on the political left have traditionally been more supportive of efforts like yours than those on the right. How do you plan to attract support from Colorado’s conservative bloc this time around?
Aldworth: Support for ending marijuana prohibition spans the political and ideological spectrum, and there are numerous conservative arguments for regulating marijuana like alcohol. For starters, it is fiscally prudent. Right now Colorado spends approximately $25 to $40 million per year to arrest, prosecute, and jail individuals for non-violent marijuana offenses without any measurable effect on supply or demand. Passage of Amendment 64 would allow our state and local governments to redirect law enforcement resources away from enforcing marijuana prohibition and toward addressing violent and otherwise harmful crimes.
Ending marijuana prohibition will also strengthen national security. The underground marijuana market is a key source of funding for the drug cartels and other narco-terrorists wreaking havoc on our southern border. Not only are the cartels harming American citizens, but they are also terrorizing American businesses with operations in Mexico at a time when they can least afford it.
Prohibition also forces marijuana into an underground market where proof of age isn’t required for purchase and where other, harder drugs are available. By putting marijuana behind the counter, requiring proof of age, and strictly controlling its sale, we can make it harder for teens to get their hands on it. We are reaching out to conservative leaders and groups across the state, and we are finding more support among them than ever before.
TCO: What do you say to charges that making marijuana legal in Colorado will make the state a nationwide hub for illegal marijuana activity in the rest of the country?
Aldworth: It is currently illegal to transport marijuana out of Colorado, and if Amendment 64 is approved by voters, it will remain just as illegal. Federal authorities already consider marijuana to be “universally available,” and it will remain universally available regardless of whether or not Coloradans pass Amendment 64. Under the current system of prohibition, authorities have no control over who is producing and distributing marijuana, and there is no way to know where it is going. In a system in which marijuana is regulated like alcohol, officials will be directly involved in the process, and they will be able to make sure marijuana is being produced and sold in accordance with the law.