In November of 2012, Colorado became the first state in the US to legalize recreational cannabis use. After more than 70 years of draconian prohibition laws, the passing of the measure came as a shock to both supporters and opponents. States had voted on similar measures before, and a number of states already had successful medical cannabis programs, but still, Colorado’s Amendment 64 signified the start of a new era in the fight to end prohibition. And, despite the fact that the fight continues today, Colorado’s experiment has been widely considered successful - with Oregon and Washington putting similar legalization measures into effect since then. In fact, California will be voting on its own recreational legalization, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or AUMA, in less than a month.
Why Colorado? How was the history and context of cannabis law different here than in the rest of the US? Do the roots of this groundbreaking measure lie deep in the history of the state, or in a more recent surge of progressive thinking in population centers like Denver? What can proponents of legalization learn from Colorado’s success story? To what extent did pro-cannabis sentiment already exist, and how large of a role did the 2012 campaign for Amendment 64 play in raising support?
The early history of cannabis in Colorado reflects the story in the rest of the country. When Colorado became a state in 1876, cannabis was perfectly legal, and available as a popular remedy in pharmacies throughout the country. 1906 saw the first federal regulation of cannabis for consumption, which simply required products that contain cannabis to be properly labeled as such.
Where Colorado diverges from the American story and becomes its own distinctive case is in the early 20th century. As a southwestern state, Colorado was on the front lines of some of the early anti-cannabis campaigns, rooted in racism and xenophobia against largely Mexican immigrants. While in some regions, such as the South, cannabis became associated with the mostly black Jazz subculture, in Colorado, prohibition sentiment grew almost exclusively out of white America’s irrational fear of Mexican immigrants.
As migrant workers increasingly populated the southern US, xenophobia started to rear its ugly head, as it often has during moments of American history when large numbers of non-white immigrants began to live and work in the US. At this point, it was Latin American migrant farm workers that captured the public’s misguided attention. Many of these immigrants preferred cannabis to alcohol, hailing from Latin American regions where the plant had a longer history of consumption for psychoactive properties. It had long been consumed for medicinal and spiritual reasons in Central America, and by Mexico’s 1917 revolution, had become extremely popular with soldiers.
Taking advantage of the rising xenophobic sentiment in the US, the media and public officials began referring to the plant as “marijuana” rather than cannabis, to emphasize the connection to the new wave of maligned, Spanish speaking immigrants. In reality of course, white Americans had already been consuming cannabis in great quantities throughout the second half of the 19th century. The new name drew a line in the sand, and allowed detractors to start building a new, negative reputation for the plant - separate from its trusted and ubiquitous past in the US.
The first law to outlaw cannabis in the US was passed in California in 1913, and went even further to refer to cannabis as “loco weed.” In the years following, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming all passed their own prohibition laws. Finally, in 1917, Colorado passed laws that made possession and use of cannabis a misdemeanor, punishable by fines and as much as a month in jail. While this first law is thought to have emerged from the same ‘temperance’ movement that soon led to alcohol prohibition, the next decades would see much more heavy handed anti-cannabis laws in Colorado, that were clearly founded in racism.
Cannabis was now being included in sensationalistic new stories that most often involved Mexican immigrants. One story claimed that a Mexican immigrant who murdered his stepdaughter in Denver was under the influence of cannabis at the time. Reporting on the story focused mostly on his Mexican roots and his alleged use of cannabis. Shortly thereafter, a Denver chaplain named Val Higgins called for legislation to control the growing Mexican population, saying to the Rocky Mountain News that "The use of marijuana came into the state with the Mexicans migrating here for agricultural work. Its use is growing because of the increasing number of Mexicans and the ease with which most of them have been able to avoid penalties."
It was mostly downhill from there. In 1929 the state legislature passed a law making cannabis possession, use, and distribution a felony offense. The racist angle continued to be played up in the following decades, with one reporter writing an expose on how easy it was to purchase cannabis, sold in “deuces and aces”, from “dark-face men” in one of Denver’s less reputable neighborhoods. In 1937, the same year federal prohibition went into effect, an article in the Denver Post reported that two Mexican men had been caught selling cannabis to local high school students, and were sentenced to ninety days in jail. The article reported that the men bragged that cannabis grows wild on the nearby Platte River - which was unlikely to be true - and was perhaps only published to ramp up public hysteria against cannabis.
The same trends continued for another 2 decades, reaching something of a peak in the 1950s, when cannabis users could face decades in prison under the Boggs Act. Racism and xenophobia also reached new heights in homogenous post-war America.
The tide didn’t really start to turn until the 1960s brought a new brand of liberalism to college campuses in Colorado. On top of the fact that this new generation had a favorable view of cannabis in and of itself, the budding civil rights movement took some momentum away from the openly racist anti-cannabis campaigns of the prior decades. Despite a new anti-hippie backlash, and a new wave of anti-cannabis journalism, things started to change. By 1965, reporters were noting how widely available cannabis had become at the University of Colorado. In 1968, 67 percent of college students in Colorado shared a favorable view of cannabis.
By the 1970s, the new hippie-inspired perspective on cannabis was making its way into some of Colorado’s governing bodies. In 1970, progressive public officials were calling for cannabis legal reform, and in August of 1970, possession was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor offense. The same year, Hunter S. Thompson ran for Sherriff of Pitkin county, not far from Denver. Thompson managed to win 173 votes to his opponent’s 204 – remarkable, considering Thompson was running on a platform in favor of decriminalizing a variety of drugs, including cannabis. Clearly, the sentiment was changing, in what only a few decades earlier had been a conservative frontier state.