Monday, May 6, 2013

Clock Ticking On Colorado’s Marijuana Repeal Bill

Proposal to revote on pot legalization is losing steam.

While the rest of the nation argues over Colorado’s recent decision to legalize limited amounts of marijuana, a small but determined group of legislators in that state have been promoting a bill that would allow a “conditional repeal” of the pot amendment.

The proposal to resubmit the question of retail marijuana sales to Colorado voters is supported by Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs).* The proposed ballot measure would first ask voters to approve previously promised higher tax rates on marijuana. On April 29, the Colorado House passed a bill placing a 15% excise tax and a 10% sales tax on marijuana, and came up with the idea of submitting the plan to the voters as a ballot proposal. If the higher tax doesn’t pass, citizens would then be asked whether retail sales should be repealed.  “People voted for marijuana and tax,” said State Senator Morse, “and what they got was marijuana and we’ll see if they get the tax."

Republican Senator Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) and others point to the fact that Amendment 64 called for $40 million in new excise taxes for state school funds, in addition to the legal cultivation of 6 plants and possession of a ounce or less. “So if there’s no money,” Crowder told a Denver TV station, “we shouldn’t have marijuana.”

“The marijuana legalization repeal — or suspension — proposal would also have to be approved by voters,” according to the Denver Post. “But, before it could reach the ballot, it would need two-thirds support in the Capitol because it would change a provision of Colorado's constitution.”

Today is the last day that House Bill 1380 can move forward in the final hours of Colorado’s legislative session, a disheartening prospect for marijuana supporters, faced with the notion of fighting the fight all over again. The Boulder Weekly called it “a sneak attack on Amendment 64.” But it appears that most of the steam has leaked out of the repeal drive. Rep. Dan Pabon (D-Denver) told the Post that “there was a pretty strong grassroots response that I think every member received that said, 'Don't threaten us.'"

Here’s how SMART Colorado, a group opposing legalization, puts the argument: “Amendment 64 raised the possibility of new taxes on marijuana but didn’t enact them. If voters don’t now approve new taxes on marijuana, Colorado’s budget will take a major hit and Amendment 64 will have exactly the opposite effect from what was promised voters.”

Supporters of state legalization claim the legislators are trying to change the rules in midstream, by asking voters to approve a sales tax that is higher than necessary. Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project claims the move amounts to “extortion of the voters. They’re being told they must approve a higher tax level proposed by legislators or otherwise the constitutional amendment they adopted in November will be repealed.”

The measure’s chances are slim in the Colorado legislature—a group altogether mindful of the 55% margin by which voters passed the original amendment.

Meanwhile, in the state of Washington, legalization plans ran up against a major hurdle when it was discovered that the current law defines marijuana, the drug, as anything with more than 0.3 % THC content. Unfortunately for the state’s crime lab, that bar is so low that law enforcement actions against large grower operations and possession of large quantities would founder over the fact that most of what cops seized would be defined, in effect, as hemp. Yes, the state of Washington managed to criminalize the large-scale possession of hemp, so the House and Senate quietly scrambled to re-criminalize large-scale marijuana possession, not hemp possession, by defining THC content more scientifically.

This is only a snapshot of the regulatory issues that await attention in Washington and Colorado, as they attempt to become the first states to navigate new waters and divorce themselves from federal drug policy imperatives. There is still a very long way to go. In a speech in Mexico City last Friday, President Obama firmly closed the door on the idea that the feds might be persuaded to support state marijuana legalization efforts.

*Late Monday night, the bill's sponsors backed off, and the marijuana repeal proposal died for lack of support.

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