Passage of Amendment 64 gives way to questions about implementation, federal intervention
November 7, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The resounding approval of marijuana legalization by voters in Routt County and across Colorado on Tuesday quickly has shifted focus to the complicated issues that must be worked out by local, state and federal governments before the full intent of Amendment 64 can be realized.
In Steamboat Springs, for example, where 69 percent of voters supported Amendment 64, city leaders will be faced with the question of whether to allow retail marijuana shops. Steamboat Springs City Council President Bart Kounovsky acknowledged Wednesday that it will be difficult for local officials to ignore the will of their constituents. Amendment 64 allows local municipalities to prohibit retail businesses where marijuana could be sold to adults 21 and older.
"At first blush, it appears that we'll be heading toward a regulated type (of) situation in the city, pending guidance from the state," Kounovsky said.
Attention turned Wednesday to what that guidance would be. Early in the day, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers released a statement indicating that despite his personal opposition to Amendment 64, his office would help the state move toward implementing the provisions of the constitutional changes. He also reminded residents that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and that potential tax revenues from the sale of marijuana earmarked by Amendment 64 for a state school construction fund first would have to be approved separately by the Legislature and then a vote of the people.
Suthers' call Wednesday for the Department of Justice to "make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by Amendment 64" was followed shortly thereafter by a terse message from the U.S. Attorney General's Office in Colorado.
"The Department of Justice’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," the release stated. "In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time."
In Routt County, where a total of 63 percent of voters supported Amendment 64, Sheriff Garrett Wiggins acknowledged that while he wasn't surprised the measure passed, "obviously it was not to my liking." Wiggins was among the heads of local and regional law enforcement agencies who spoke out against Amendment 64 before the election, citing in part a concern that it might increase use of marijuana among children.
"I hope this is one of those instances where I'm proven wrong," Wiggins said Wednesday.
However, he said his deputies would enforce state laws, including any changes set forth by Amendment 64.
"We have no jurisdiction in enforcing federal law," Wiggins said.
Establishing the framework for businesses to sell marijuana to recreational users is expected take at least a year, but the personal liberties that come from the passage of Amendment 64 will begin as soon as Gov. John Hickenlooper makes Tuesday's vote official. That verification should come before the end of the year. At that time, it will be legal for anyone 21 and older to possess as much as 1 ounce of marijuana and to grow as many as six plants. Of course, that will conflict with federal marijuana law, and those competing regulations are expected to figure greatly in the state's issuance of licenses to future recreational pot shops by Jan. 1, 2014.
Hickenlooper is hoping to get clarity sooner rather than later. The Denver Post reported Wednesday that the governor was trying to set up a phone call for Thursday with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the federal government's position on Amendment 64.
“My sense is that it is unlikely the federal government is going to allow states one by one to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana,” Hickenlooper told the Post.
A city timeout?
Although the framework that would allow retail pot shops to operate across the state isn't expected to be ready for at least a year, the Steamboat Springs City Council wants to make sure it has a chance to consider its own rules for dispensaries. The council will consider an emergency moratorium on recreational pot shops at its Tuesday meeting.
"The only reason we're discussing a moratorium is so the city can take pause and decide how the city wants to handle the retail aspect of retail sales," Kounovsky said.
Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae said the moratorium would have no effect on the legalization of possession of marijuana as outlined in Amendment 64.
Kevin Fisher, co-owner of the Steamboat-based Rocky Mountain Remedies medical marijuana dispensary, said Wednesday that the passage of Amendment 64 was significant for the country's marijuana movement, but he's concerned it will invite federal attention, potentially even resulting in businesses like his — which were permitted with the passage of Amendment 20 in 2000 — being shut down.
"Will the feds back down?" Fisher asked. "I'd love to see the feds back off. I'd love to see the feds change."
Until that happens, Fisher said, he's supportive of the moratorium the City Council will consider next week. If the federal government eases its stance on the state's legalization, Fisher said, he would withdraw his support for the moratorium and take steps to open a retail shop of his own "if we are prematurely forced to go recreational because of market forces."
Key points from Amendment 64
• The amendment will take effect once the vote is made official by the governor. That is expected in the next month or two.
• Driving under the influence of marijuana will remain illegal.
• People must be at least 21 years old to purchase or possess marijuana.
• People will be allowed to possess as much as 1 ounce of marijuana.
• Marijuana will be labeled and subject to additional regulations from the state to ensure that consumers are "informed and protected."
• Consumption of marijuana in public is not allowed.
• People will be allowed to grow as many as six plants, three of which can be mature plants. No one will be allowed to sell marijuana without a license.
• People 21 or older won't be allowed help people younger than 21 get marijuana.
• The state will regulate, among other things, security at shops and labeling and could impose restrictions on advertising.
• Colorado voters will decide later whether marijuana sales should be taxed.
• Local governments will be able to ban retail stores or limit the number of retail stores.
• Employers still will be able to enforce policies restricting the use of marijuana by employees.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com