The Beginning of Amendment 64
This week is the anniversary of Colorado’s Amendment 64, which allows adults 21 and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana from specialty dispensaries and grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. Adults 21 and up are also allowed possession of up to an ounce for personal use. Selling marijuana without a license, purchasing it from a non-licensed party and public consumption still remains illegal. The measure passed on November 6, 2012 and by January 1, 2014 the commercial sale of marijuana to the general public began.
When Amendment 64 passed, it was unclear if the federal government would intervene. “It was such a roll of the dice,” recalls Jane West, a Coloradoan who has remained dedicated to advocacy and the normalization of the plant for years. “I remember in December of 2013, like one week before [it passed], many people [were] still believing, ‘Oh no no no. Those 20-something stores that are gonna open their doors on January first and start selling weed, the Feds are gonna come bust them all. All those people are going to jail.’ No one knew what was going to happen.” She is the Founder & CEO of Jane West, a company that creates “Luxe accessories for a modern, sophisticated cannabis experience.”
Since A64’s passage, cannabis is taxed and regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco; state and local governments control and tax the sale of the products, making tremendous contributions to the state’s economy. Brian Vicente, an original co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, said in a statement after the vote, “Thanks to their votes, we will now reap the benefits of regulation. We will create new jobs, generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, and allow law enforcement to focus on serious crimes.” And he was right.
By April 2016, 62 of Colorado’s 271 cities and towns—and 22 of the state’s 64 counties—had adopted some form of recreational marijuana regulation. Jane West, a Cannabusiness owner since the onset of A64, told me that, in regards to the Colorado cannabis industry, “There are areas that Colorado excels, and areas where the way things are done could use some refining. Like any milestone movement, there will be changes along the way and lessons learned.”
Colorado, like many other states who have legalized, has yet to fully grasp how to address consumption and the workplace. “At the end of the day, it’s going to take a lot of education,” West expressed. “This is a far safer substance than alcohol, and it’s something that adults should be able to utilize in their time off. It’s something that we absolutely need to be talking about, and we should be bringing up in conversation about the workforce, because legal cannabis is the future.” West lost her corporate job because her employer saw her on an NBC news special promoting her new business ventures during the first 60 days of adult use in 2014.
Questions Regarding Social Use
Social cannabis use is another issue that has yet to be solved, although many business owners and entrepreneurs have vocalized their unhappiness with regulation, including West: “Amendment 64 is the gold standard, and it was because of how much work and effort went into consensus building around the table to try this brand new thing. I do think one of the biggest issues with Amendment 64 is the social use factor. I don’t hardly drink alcohol at all, but when I drank more I didn’t get wasted on a Tuesday at my house with my kids. You go out to do that. You go meet people. You gather together and drink alcohol, and the exact same thing should be accessible to adults here in Colorado [for cannabis] . . . Now that we are three years into [legalization], we know that our roads are just as safe as they were before, that teen use of overall illicit substances is down—we can see that the sky is not falling. In fact, bringing cannabis and small business-owned cannabis into these communities has been a benefit.”
This isn’t to say that West, among others, doesn’t understand why there is conflict surrounding social use. Before legal access, there was no health data or information about public access and consumption. “Because it had never been legal before,” explains West, “and people didn’t have legal access to cannabis, it was hard to defeat people’s strong opinions that [cannabis] is a vice, as opposed to a wellness product and a healthy habit. I understand why [education] wasn’t [available] at the beginning, but now . . . we have the data to prove the naysayers wrong and apply what we have learned. Hopefully social use regulations [will be] a built-in component of legalization initiatives in the second half of the country as each state starts to legalize.”
The War on Drugs
But with Colorado being the “gold standard,” as West puts it, there’s still room for inclusivity and righting the wrongs that the War on Drugs placed on people of color (POC). I asked her whether Colorado has made the cannabis industry inclusive to women and POC, the latter being most affected by the War on Drugs, and she responded that “there are very, very few licenses held by POC and women in this space, and that alone is the answer.” She went on to say that, “at the same time, Colorado and Amendment 64 has almost unlimited licensing. It’s based on meeting a certain group of criteria that, if I meet that criteria or someone else meets that criteria, we’re all eligible to acquire licenses. In a way, it makes it the most accessible regulated cannabis market in the country.” She addressed how states like Florida and New York are “basically putting into place regulated monopoly structures” by only allowing a handful of license holders within the state. But is Colorado’s “unlimited licensing” really unbiased and fair? The short answer is no.
The “certain group of criteria” West refers to is highly biased, and excludes anyone affected by the War on Drugs. The application asks questions such as, “Have you discharged a sentence for a conviction of a felony pursuant to any state or federal law regarding the possession, distribution, manufacturing, cultivation, or use of a controlled substance, including probation or parole, within the past 10 years, even if the conviction occurred more than 10 years ago? Have you served a sentence, including probation or parole, within the past 5 years upon conviction for ANY felony, even if the conviction occurred more than 5 years ago?” and “Have you failed to remedy an outstanding delinquency for any judgments, taxes, interest or penalties due to the Department of Revenue, relating to Medical or Retail Marijuana?” If you answer yes to any one of these questions, your application is automatically denied.
Marijuana possession charges make up nearly half of all drug arrests, and POC are always more likely, sometimes ten times more likely, to be targeted and arrested for drug-related charges. The Colorado license application criteria effectively disqualifies many of those who spent time behind bars for something now celebrated; an industry built of the intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit of low-income POC now excludes those who made the industry possible. Although Colorado may be an open market for many, it is far from perfect. According to a study by the ACLU, black people and white folks use marijuana at similar rates, but arrest numbers don’t reflect these statistics. “When you look at the actual demographics of who is owning these businesses and succeeding, the top five players in Colorado are all Caucasian males,” West explained. Men of privilege, men who were not affected by the prohibition of cannabis or put behind bars, are the beneficiaries of generations of advocacy by POC who were stigmatized as “thugs” and “criminals.”
Looking Towards the Future
As a country, we still have room to grow when it comes to effectively righting the wrongs of our past and present. There are still many people in jail for marijuana charges, sometimes their first offense. People like Alice Marie Johnson, a mother, grandmother and now great grandmother who has spent 21 years of her life in prison for nonviolent drug conspiracy charges. She was sentenced to life in prison for cannabis. She is one of so many in prison for nonviolent, drug-related charges.
On this anniversary, one of triumph and celebration, we hope to evaluate how we can effectively create a space for equity, and have “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” for everyone become a part of the conversation—and legislation—moving forward. We’ll continue to DEFEND our plant, our people and our planet, everywhere.