16 Aug 0
With Alaska and Oregon gearing up to vote on legalizing marijuana in a few months and many other states considering it further down the road, one state is on everyone’s mind — Colorado.
Activists on both sides of the pot debate are pointing to the Colorado experiment — what they see as its great successes or its horror stories — to make their case around the country.
Their claims about crime, job creation, quality of life, and tax revenues are so divergent that it’s surprising to realize they are talking about the same state.
But the picture that each side paints — however incomplete or distorted — is likely to influence the broader legalization debate, making the Rocky Mountain State ground zero for the coming pot wars.
“I understand why advocates on both sides are seizing on every scrap of data to make their case; that’s what advocates do,” said Sam Kamin, a member of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s now-closed task force to implement the law and who backs legalization. “We’re in uncharted territory and … people are clinging to any hard data they can find,” he added, warning against a temptation to “cherry-pick statistics.”
While Washington state just opened its first marijuana shops in July, Colorado’s pot industry has been up and running for months.
A measure on the Alaska ballot and one that will likely appear on the Oregon ballot for the November midterm elections would make those the third and fourth states to legalize the sale and use of marijuana.
But there’s a big problem with the rest of the country looking to Colorado for answers, experts say: There has not been a comprehensive independent study on marijuana implementation in the state. The experts warn that is too early for states to be drawing hard and fast conclusions from the Colorado experience, which only began its implementation in January.
Activists on both sides in Alaska and Oregon and elsewhere, however, aren’t heeding those calls to slow down.
“Colorado is demonstrating to the rest of the country that regulating marijuana works,” said Mason Tvert, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization campaigning to legalize pot across the country. Pro-pot advocates point to Colorado as a sterling example of the various benefits legalized marijuana can bring to other states — increased tax revenue, economic growth through job creation, more tourism, along with regulations that encourage safe use and wipe out the black market.
Pushing one of their central marketing points, legalization supporters argue that the last six-and-a-half months of the Colorado experiment prove past predictions of doom from anti-legalization advocates have not come to fruition. In particular, they say, crime rates and marijuana use in Colorado have not increased, and believe that with the nightmare scenarios now falling by the way side, states will be convinced to follow in the same path.
“There was a lot of ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric about legalization in Colorado, and the sky hasn’t fallen,” said Forrest Dunbar, a Democratic congressional candidate in Alaska and a supporter of the state’s legalization measure.
Opponents, though, say a closer look at what’s happening in Colorado should deter Alaska, Oregon and the rest of the country with pressing ahead. They contend that in just half a year, the state already has seen public safety problems, rising usage rates, and pot being marketed to kids.
“The creation of a new Big Tobacco-type industry has emerged in Colorado, along with multiple deaths, increased emergency room admissions, increased poison control center calls, and increased admissions to treatment,” said Kevin Sabet, who co-founded the anti-legalization Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). “By any measure, it [has] not been a successful rollout in Colorado.”
Some elected officials around the country have also warned their states against adopting the Colorado approach. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said his state will not legalize marijuana on his watch and cited the Rocky Mountain State as the reason why. “See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there’s head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high,” Christie said in an April radio interview.
In some ways, 2014 is an appetizer for a much larger slate of ballot initiatives expected to come in 2016. Tvert and others acknowledge that some states delayed putting initiatives to a vote for another two years to take advantage of the presidential cycle, which traditionally brings out a larger, younger and more liberal bloc of voters that have more favorable views toward legalization
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