ANALYSIS: Conservative Support Boosted Marijuana Initiative Victory

November 30, 2012

GREEN LIGHT:  Support from voters in key conservative locales gave Amendment 64 the bipartisan support backers had been hoping for (aforero/foter image)

DENVER – Colorado’s marijuana legalization initiative, Amendment 64, passed with surprisingly high support from some of Colorado’s most conservative counties.

While the issue of marijuana legalization has normally been seen as a cause championed almost exclusively by the liberal left, its backers in Colorado appear to represent a much broader political spectrum.

Voters in conservative confines from Weld County to El Paso County supported Amendment 64, albeit by slim margins.  But the notion that voters in these Republican bastions would support decriminalizing recreational pot use would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

In 2006, Amendment 44 – the first attempt in Colorado to legalize small amounts of marijuana – failed overwhelmingly, going down by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin statewide.

In El Paso county, the result was even more lopsided with the initiative failing nearly 2-to-1.  In 2012, however, Amendment 64 won in El Paso by 10 votes — a striking turnaround from six years ago.

The reason for Amendment 64’s success may be found in how proponents pitched the proposal, emphasizing the regulation of marijuana like alcohol rather than simply calling for legalization.  It’s that shift in tactics that some political observers believe was a key contributor to Amendment 64’s resounding 55 percent to 45 percent statewide victory this month – one of the most lopsided victories for a controversial ballot initiative in recent memory.

A recent commentary by conservative pollster Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports lays out why that altered strategy helped reverse the fortunes for marijuana legalization proponents this year.

“When we ask Americans simply whether they favor legalization of marijuana, 45 percent say yes and 45 percent say no,” wrote Rasmussen earlier this month. “But when we ask about legalizing and regulating marijuana in a similar manner to the way alcohol and cigarettes are regulated, support for legalization increases to 56 percent. Only 36 percent remain opposed.”

In addition to picking up key support from conservative corners of the state, Amendment 64 also succeeded in generating larger margins of victory than Amendment 44 did in liberal counties such as Boulder and Denver.

In 2006, for example, Amendment 44 took 56 percent of the vote in notoriously left-leaning Boulder County.  In 2012, however, Amendment 64 won an even larger victory there, notching a 66 percent to 34 percent victory.

Similar shifts in support for marijuana legalization between 2006′s failed attempt and 2012′s successful one can be seen in key swing counties like Jefferson and Arapahoe as well.  But it was support from voters in key conservative locales that gave the measure the full bipartisan support backers had been hoping for.

“We had great advocates making the conservative case for Amendment 64 in those [conservative] areas, such as former Weld County deputy district attorney Bob Knepel, 18-year police veteran Howard Wooldridge who co-founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and of course former Congressman Tom Tancredo,” said Joe Megyesy, the conservative outreach coordinator for Amendnent 64.

“Amendment 64 is all about promoting fiscal sanity, personal responsibility and individual freedom, which is why it clearly resonated with voters in traditionally conservative strongholds,” Megyesy added.

By enlisting conservative firebrands like Tancredo, and supportive quotes from The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, Amendment 64 supporters made a strong play for voters on the right side of the political spectrum.  The effort allowed backers to successfully cobble together a coalition of libertarian leaning conservatives, liberals and younger voters to push the effort across the electoral finish line.

The issue of legalization, or more specifically the implementation of Amendment 64, could see even greater support from conservatives as passage of the initiative has set up what could be a contentious legal battle between the state of Colorado and the federal government.

Republican Congressman Mike Coffman, himself an opponent of Amendment 64, is co-sponsoring a bill that would help to avert that conflict by barring the federal government from prosecuting the residents of states that approve pot-friendly laws, something Coffman says is necessary to respect the will of the voters.

While the legalization of weed was once seen as the purview of liberal stoners and hippies, Amendment 64 cobbled together a diverse coalition spanning from left to right that no longer lends itself to that stereotype.

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