DENVER — Ordinarily Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Democrat, enjoys being ahead of the curve — but not when it comes to being the first state to legalize marijuana for nonmedical use.
Mr. Hickenlooper, along with a bevy of other top Colorado officeholders, has come out against Amendment 64, which would lift the prohibition on recreational marijuana use and possession for adults 21 and older.
Voters in two other states, Oregon and Washington, are also considering statewide measures to legalize recreational marijuana. All three initiatives would direct the state to regulate and tax the drug in the same manner as current regulations on liquor.
“Colorado is known for many things — marijuana should not be one of them,” Mr. Hickenlooper said in a statement. “Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK.”
Mr. Hickenlooper’s statement puts him on the same side of the issue as former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, but at odds with the Colorado Democratic Party, which has expressed support in its platform for Amendment 64.
Also backing Amendment 64 are two prominent Colorado Republicans, former Rep. Tom Tancredo and state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, in an election that gives new meaning to the phrase “strange bedfellows.”
“Think to yourselves, conservatives, who you are siding with,” Mr. Tancredo said at a rally in favor of Amendment 64 earlier this month. “Not just the nanny-staters, but with the cartels.”
In the polls, voters are deadlocked on the Colorado measure, with surveys showing support either just above or just below 50 percent. A Public Policy Polling survey released Monday showed the measure ahead, 53 to 43 percentage points, with the rest undecided.
Washington’s Initiative 502 appears to enjoy the strongest support: a Strategies 360 survey released Monday shows the measure ahead 54 percent to 38 percent. Oregon’s Measure 80, which trails by a margin of 49 to 42 percentage points, according to a poll released Tuesday by The Oregonian, faces the longest odds.
Colorado’s Amendment 64 campaign has pushed the message that smoking pot isn’t just for hippies anymore. In a series of press conferences, the Yes on 64 camp has promoted its support from groups including police officers, suburban parents, conservatives, medical personnel and religious leaders.
The group has touted support for decriminalization from figures as disparate as rocker Melissa Etheridge and economist Milton Friedman. In July, the group put up a billboard in Grand Junction, Colo., saying “Pat Robertson Would Vote Yes on 64. Will You?”
The campaign has also stressed the economic benefits of marijuana legalization, saying the tax revenue after 2017 could top $100 million and support public services such as education.
In one television ad, a graphic shows dollars moving from Colorado to Mexico and says, “We all know where the money from nonmedical marijuana sales is currently going. It doesn’t need to be that way. … Let’s have marijuana tax money go to our schools and not criminals.”
The measure’s opponents predict that its passage could transform Colorado into a North American drug hub, noting that the state’s booming medical-marijuana dispensary business has already attracted illegal trafficking.
“[I]f Colorado becomes an island with legal marijuana, what’s to prevent it from also becoming a magnet nationally for marijuana users, growers and distributors?” said The Denver Post in an Oct. 14 editorial opposing Amendment 64.
Amendment 64 limits sales to one ounce, but “it would be next to impossible to prevent out-of-state visitors from buying several ounces at various outlets and returning home,” said the editorial.
The law-enforcement conflicts already present with medical marijuana would only intensify, say critics. The Justice Department said in 2009 that it would leave regulation of medical marijuana to state authorities, but has since conducted raids on dispensaries in California and Colorado.
Longtime Denver legalization activist Mason Tvert said Amendment 64 would actually decrease drug crime by instituting a legal marijuana-regulation framework.
(Corrected paragraph:) “We would put drug cartels out of business by regulating marijuana,” said Mr. Tvert, who was the driving force behind the 2005 Denver initiative that was the first in the nation to remove all penalties for adult marijuana possession. “Right now, it’s entirely uncontrolled. What we’re proposing is a system where we do know where it’s being sold and we can track it.”
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli predicted the Colorado measure would fall short, but agreed that support for decriminalization is gaining more converts.
“I give a lot of speeches to civic groups, and I find a surprising number of people who say, ‘It’s time to regulate it and tax it already,’” Mr. Ciruli said. “These are people involved in business and civic organizations. It’s not just for college students or dopers in Pitkin County.”