Colorado experiment

If Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado loses his race for reelection, it may well be because he didn’t tout his chief accomplishment: the legalization of marijuana.

On Nov. 4, 2012, a majority of Coloradans voted to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana. The commercial sale of marijuana has been overseen by the state, and possession in small amounts has been decriminalized.

To be sure, there is still much that we don’t know, and in the words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “there are also unknown unknowns.” Colorado’s policy choice is a social experiment, and Hickenlooper could be said to be its lead researcher. As the chief executive of the state he is responsible for much of the regulating marijuana.

One of the first feedback measures to this social experiment was captured by a headline in the New York Times, “Colorado Expects to Reap Tax Bonanza From Legal Marijuana Sales,” on Feb. 20, 2014.

However, Hickenlooper, a Democrat, hasn’t touted this early measure of success. In his fifth debate with his Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez, he said marijuana legalization was “reckless.”

He didn’t support the initiative when it was on the ballot, and he has been dour on it ever since it passed. For a moment, put aside the value of the policy and think about the politics. Hickenlooper may not support the marijuana legalization, but to reiterate an earlier point, his administration will oversee this social experiment. It has been his administration which has instructed much of what the Colorado Department of Revenue does; the regulating agency for marijuana distributors.

But rather than discuss the very real, and measurable benefits to this complete change in policy choice as it relates to marijuana, he would rather position himself the middle as conventional wisdom says you should in an election. This won’t earn Hickenlooper many votes.

Socially conservative voters, the kind who are likely to deplore the use of marijuana because it ‘rots the mind,’ are already mad as hell at Hickenlooper for his decision to increase restrictions on firearms.

In 2013, Colorado enacted laws which called for the implementation of a background check system for firearm purchases, and limit ammo to 15 rounds per clip.

Two Democratic members of the state Legislature were recalled.

Hickenlooper, who for most of his first term remained immensely popular, didn’t suffer a recall vote, but did suffer a drop in the polls. Public Opinion Strategies in January 2012, showed Hickenlooper with a 66 percent approval rating, compared to just 43 percent now.

More on polls, marijuana law isn’t at the top of the list of voter concerns, especially not in an economy on the doldrums. Yet, the issue is important for the sect of voters that Hickenlooper needs to turnout, and who are unlikely to turnout in a midterm election, young voters. More specifically, voters who came out to provide President Barack Obama with the majority he needed in Colorado, 1,238,490 to 1,125,391, required to win the state’s nine electoral votes.

So, we’ve established that this is bad politics to denounce marijuana legalization. It is also bad policy. For more than six decades the war on drugs has been waged, and it’s been a failure by any objective measure. We lock away an inordinate amount of our citizens for victimless crimes, and spend a lot of money doing it.

Jeffrey Miron, the economist and Harvard University professor, wrote in “The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition” that states and localities could save $25.7 billion annually if they were to end prohibition. Research from Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has shown that this spending at the state and local level has started to crowd out other expenditures which people often to deem to be more important – like education for example.

“Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods,” said the report by Michael Mitchell and Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.”

A “Colorado Expects to Reap Tax Bonanza From Legal Marijuana Sales” read the headline in the New York Times, and that is what has happened. The state drew in $134 million in taxes from the sale of marijuana. Marijuana has been economized in a way not done before in the U.S.

The state is set to save a lot of money, and per the law’s requirements, a portion of the funds will be used to finance substance abuse treatment and marijuana use prevention in children.

These are accomplishments, not results to be spurned. Moreover, Beauprez, the Republican candidate for governor of Colorado, has been even colder towards the idea. Hickenlooper’s loss, if that indeed happens, will not only be his fault and his own loss, but a loss for marijuana advocates.

Beauprez could easily end this social experiment before it has had time to be fully studied.


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