The first bill to legalize cannabis was introduced in 1973, by Republican legislator Michael Strang. It proposed legalizing cannabis possession for anyone over the age of 18. The bill proposed a 6-dollar tax on every ounce of cannabis sold, for which the current price was about 15 dollars. It would have licensed growers, wholesalers, and retailers. The bill never passed out of committee, although just 2 years later the Colorado State Legislature decriminalized private use and possession of cannabis, reducing penalties to a maximum fine of 100 dollars.
1979 saw the introduction of Colorado’s first medical cannabis bill, called the “Dangerous Drugs Therapeutic Research Act”, which theoretically allowed glaucoma and cancer patients access to cannabis. The plan, however, never went into action after awaiting federal government approval which never came. Another 1981 bill tried to arrange for patients to get their cannabis through the federal government itself. Once again, the federal government didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain – patients were never able to access cannabis under this law. After California passed its medical cannabis law in 1996, another attempt to legalize medical cannabis in 1998 ran into bureaucratic resistance in Colorado’s state government.
It wasn’t until 2000 that medical cannabis proponents found success, when Colorado passed Amendment 20. The amendment made Colorado the only state to make legal medical cannabis part of its constitution. Starting in June 2001, patients with muscle spasms, seizures, severe pain and nausea, and chronic weight loss, were allowed to get their cannabis from ‘caretakers’ after receiving a doctor’s prescription.
Throughout the early 2000s, Safer Alternatives to Recreational Enjoyment and other pro-cannabis organizations continued to push for further decriminalization of marijuana for recreational possession. In 2007, Denver approved a measure to make cannabis possession the lowest priority for law enforcement in the city. That same year, a judge ruled that the ‘caretakers’ of the original medical bill were no longer limited to five patients, which had been the previous interpretation of the law. This opened the door for a system of dispensaries like we see in California, and by 2009 there were dozens in the Denver metro area.
The Ogden Memo, issued by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden in October of 2009, stipulated that federal authorities should not prioritize interference with legal medical programs in individual states. To many, this seemed to send the message that federal law enforcement did not plan on standing in the way of state laws. The number of medical patients in Colorado increased five-fold by the following July.
Finally, after a solid four decades of slow and steady progress, the summer of 2011 saw a number of proposed legalization measures. In the end, it was the one proposed by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol that managed to make it onto the ballot. Their proposal eventually became Amendment 64.
During the campaign, supporters managed to stay one step ahead of the opposition when it came to funding, outreach, and education, offering rebuttals to the opposition’s press conferences and often receiving endorsements later the same day. Mason Tyvert, one of the leaders of the legalization campaign, said “We had a formal and prepared response to every major event they did.”
Tyvert and his campaign were able to reframe the debate surrounding legal cannabis. Instead of fighting for “the right to get high”, the campaign focused on budget and law enforcement issues. In the end, this was a necessary step to win over non-cannabis smokers and get them to vote Yes. The campaign also raised massive amounts of money, and began airing TV ads six months before the election. When all was said and done, the two main fund-raising committees in support of Amendment 64 spent 2.3 million dollars, in addition to hundreds of thousands spent by other pro-legalization groups. Opponents spent less than a third of that in total – just under 700,000 dollars.
On top of this, efforts to get out the vote for Obama’s reelection campaign were already bringing plenty of voters to the polls who might not otherwise vote. Polls showed these pro-Obama voters were also likely to support Amendment 64. When the election finally happened, the amendment was passed with 55 percent of the vote – 60,000 more Yes votes than votes for Obama’s second term. Clearly, the measure had a broad base of support. The outcome was met with shock and even disbelief from both supporters and opponents.
Commercial sales of cannabis began on January 1st, 2014. It was a moment that few in the movement to end prohibition thought they would ever see.
The broad consensus among public officials is that the state has suffered no ill-effects from legalization. In 2015, the state made 135 million dollars off of legal cannabis, which has also created thousands of new jobs in a difficult economy. Even tourists are able to buy cannabis as long as they are over 21, so this has opened up an entire new sector of tourism in the mountain state. A November 2015 survey found that 53 percent of Colorado voters believed legalization had been good for the state, while only 39 percent believe it was a bad move.
Most surprisingly, a range of non-cannabis users, once skeptical of legalization, have either come to embrace, or at least accept, legalization.
House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said “There are a certain number of folks, like myself, who were pretty reticent about it to begin with.” But, he said, “the sky didn’t fall. Everything seems to be working pretty well.”
The end of prohibition had been a moment the whole country had been waiting for, and Colorado managed to make it there first. Washington voted to legalize that same year, with Initiative 502, although it didn’t see retail stores until mid-2014. For these states, it had not been a sudden impulse, or a flash in the pan result of recent gentrification. Coloradans had struggled for decades – first against the heavy handed laws of the mid twentieth century, and then against attempts to stall on the part of their own government, and finally against the federal government’s own stubbornness. At the same time, a well-funded, resourceful, broad based campaign was also necessary to push the measure through. In the end, the movement towards legalization turned out to be an unstoppable force in Colorado.