The Denver Post supports marijuana legalization — before opposing it

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Paul Danish

The Denver Post ran an odd editorial on Oct. 15 in which it averred its support for marijuana legalization, but opposed the passage of Amendment 64, which would legalize marijuana in Colorado.

Legalization should be done by the feds, not the states, the paper argues.

In a perfect world, the proper way to end the war on marijuana would be for Congress to end it. But this isn’t a perfect world, and it is especially imperfect insofar as the war on marijuana is concerned.

“It’s long past time for the federal government — both Congress and the executive branch — to move toward a less punitive and more realistic approach toward marijuana,” the Post asserted.

True enough — and the paper should have started its analysis by asking the obvious question that follows from that assertion: Why haven’t they?

Most members of Congress have known for decades that the war on marijuana was a multi-billion-dollar-a-year failure, that it was doing enormous violence to Americans’ civil liberties and to the respect for law generally, that it was infusing the twin poisons of tyranny and distrust throughout our national life, that it was fueling criminal enterprises as large as anything prohibition produced. They have also known that smoking pot is no more harmful than drinking beer, and that arresting nearly a million Americans a year on marijuana offenses was and is a monstrous injustice.

As for the executive branch, President Obama smoked pot like a chimney as a teenager, and it obviously didn’t keep him from succeeding later in life, either by killing his ambition or making him stupid. He knows from first-hand experience that the most dangerous aspect of marijuana use is the risk of getting caught.

So why haven’t the feds acted? No mystery there. When voting for president or members of Congress, most Americans don’t take a candidate’s views on marijuana into consideration. To most voters, the issue isn’t as important as national security, or jobs and the economy, or taxes and spending, or health care, or education, or the environment, or a host of other issues.

So most candidates for federal office duck the issue and go with the status quo ante; they take another snort of prohibitionist moonshine and ignore the ugly realities of pot prohibition behind the curtain.

When it comes to marijuana reform, both the president and most members of Congress are like alcoholics in denial, and they will continue to be until the American people do an intervention.

Which is one of the things that passage of Amendment 64 will do. Legalizing marijuana on the state level will send a brusque message to Congress that the time has come for it to act. More important, it would tacitly give Congress permission to act.

The Post seems to find this disconcerting, but state and local action before federal action is hardly unprecedented on social issues. And state action ahead of Congressional action is particularly appropriate in the case of marijuana law, since the states do most of the enforcing (about two-thirds) and pay most of the cost of enforcement.

The feds — both the executive branch and Congress — have made it abundantly clear that they won’t lead on marijuana reform, a point the Post essentially concedes. There is no reason for the states to defer to them. To do so would be like waiting for Godot (spoiler alert: he was a no show).

The Post also frets that if Colorado “becomes an island with legal marijuana” by passing Amendment 64, it would attract marijuana tourism from other states. Well yes, but this would not necessarily be a bad thing — either for Colorado or the tourists. For many years the state of Nevada was a gambling island. It did wonders for the state’s economy and provided millions of Americans from other states with safe, honest places to gamble.

The Post claims that there would be no way to stop out-of-staters from coming to Colorado to stock up on pot to take home with them. Perhaps not, but why stop them? If they were buying legal marijuana from licensed distributors in Colorado, they wouldn’t be buying marijuana from drug cartels like the Zetas. That’s a big plus for everyone except the Zetas.

Moreover, chances are that if Coloradans pass Amendment 64, Colorado will not remain a marijuana island for long. Polling shows American public opinion is shifting in favor of marijuana legalization, and it’s widely assumed that if Colorado (or Washington or Oregon, which also have legalization measures on the ballot this year) votes to legalize, others will swiftly follow.

The Post also objects to the fact that Amendment 64 is an amendment to the state constitution instead of an initiated law that the legislature could modify and perfect. The reason for that, of course, is that the Colorado legislature has more than once gutted citizen-passed laws in the name of perfecting them. That’s why there is a lot of stuff in the Colorado Constitution that in a perfect world wouldn’t be there.

The Post thinks fears that the legislature would do such a thing with Amendment 64 are unfounded, and that the sponsors of the Amendment are being overly paranoid.

That’s an astonishing assertion on the Post’s part, considering that not 30 days ago the Legislative Council, a standing committee of the legislature, censored the pro-Amendment 64 section of the voter guide that the state sends out to two million Colorado households by removing three of the supporters’ strongest arguments.

Putting Amendment 64 in the Constitution instead of enabling hostile politicians to mess with it isn’t being paranoid. It’s being prudent.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.