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Colorado’s marijuana legalization could be short-lived

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2013

DENVER — Those who backed last year's votes to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington are still in high spirits, but now they're also grappling with a series of post-election potholes.

A proposal under discussion in the Colorado legislature would place a measure to repeal Amendment 64 on the November ballot. The repeal would only take effect if voters refuse to approve a second measure to fund state costs associated with marijuana regulation.

No repeal bill has been introduced, but those who campaigned for Colorado's Amendment 64 were furious, arguing that the proposal amounts to "extortion of the voters."

Talk of a repeal capped what could only be described as a harsh week for pot advocates. It started when gunfire broke out at Colorado's annual 4/20 pot festival, injuring three people and leaving the legalization movement with a nasty public relations shiner.

Then the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that workers may be fired for their after-hours medical marijuana use. Medical marijuana is legal in some form in 18 states, including Colorado, but the drug remains illegal under federal law.

On the other hand, public support for legalized marijuana has never been higher. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this month found that 52 percent of adults favor legalization with 45 percent against, the first time in more than four decades of Pew polling that supporters outnumber opponents.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington officials are wading through the regulatory weeds as they grapple with the details of creating a legal framework for marijuana cultivation, sales and use for adults 21 and over.

"We are in a new era," said Democratic state Rep. Dan Pabon, who introduced one of the legislature's three pot-related bills.

His bill establishing a regulatory framework won initial passage, but debate over the pot taxation bill grew testy late Friday, with House Republicans staging a walkout shortly before midnight after being cut off by the Democratic leadership.

The Colorado legislation would create a 15 percent excise tax and 15 percent special sales tax on marijuana. House Republicans are pushing to lower the rate on both taxes to 10 percent.

In this instance, Republicans are aligned with legalization advocates, who worry that a higher tax rate could result in an expanded black market and even rejection at the hands of tax-averse voters in November.

Under Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights, any tax increase must be approved by voters. Amendment 64 calls for voters to approve an excise tax to cover the costs of marijuana regulation and fund school construction projects, but doesn't specify what would happen if voters were to reject the tax.

That's where the repeal discussion comes in. Diane Carlson of Smart Colorado, an anti-legalization group, argued that voters should be given the option of repealing Amendment 64 in order to avoid budget cuts to other spending priorities, such as K-12 education.

"This just gives the option for voters that if there is not the money to cover the costs, then Amendment 64 should not be implemented," said Ms. Carlson. "Are we going to shift money from our schools to fund marijuana? That is not what we were promised in the fall."

Christian Sederberg, a member of the state's marijuana task force, said enforcement could be funded by other means, such as licensing fees on the industry or operators' fees levied by local government.

"We're incredibly surprised to hear that there are some legislators even considering this proposal," said Mason Tvert, who led the Amendment 64 campaign. "We want to nip it in the bud because number one, it's not permissible, and number two, it's an irrational approach to implementing the will of the voters with Amendment 64."

In Washington, the ballot measure set taxation at 75 percent, settling the question. Washington legislators approved Friday a bill that sets legal distinctions between recreational marijuana and industrial hemp, which is sold for its fiber.

Washington's Liquor Control Board has been charged with implementing recreational-marijuana regulations. Still unresolved is whether the U.S. Justice Department will let the two states flout federal law by proceeding with their own regulatory framework for legalization.

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