Lawmakers skeptical of Colorado pot legalization
September 5, 2012
DENVER – A Colorado marijuana legalization measure got a skeptical review Wednesday from lawmakers who warned of constitutional challenges if the measure passes.
A panel of lawmakers helping craft the so-called “blue book” that explains November ballot measures to voters added a disclaimer to the pot proposal to explain that legalizing marijuana won’t automatically produce a windfall from a new tax on the drug. First, lawmakers would be required to refer the tax to voters, and they would have to approve it.
Lawmakers raised the issue that requiring them to vote on an issue one way or another violates the state constitution. But the matter gets tricky because the legalization of marijuana, and the tax requirement, would also be in the state constitution.
“Now all of a sudden we got a new constitutional amendment that may say, ‘Hey, we can dictate how legislators vote all the time.’ It would be offensive to our system of government in my view, but it may turn out to be the law of the land,” said Colorado Springs Sen. John Morse, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate.
The disclaimer lawmakers added says they can’t be bound to vote in favor any legislative proposal, including sending the marijuana tax to voters and that because of that the tax “might not be imposed,” and that the issue could result in “significant litigation.”
The panel cannot change ballot language already approved, only how proposals are described to voters, so if the marijuana question passes, Morse said it could pose a “huge problem” for the state.
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If passed, people over 21 would be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation.
The tax is a key component of the marijuana initiative because supporters are telling voters in the ballot question that the first $40 million in annual revenue from the tax will go to public schools.
Brian Vicente, one of the authors of the marijuana legalization question, said he thinks voters want the assurance that a tax is going to be in place, and that requiring that in the constitution creates a guarantee.
But deputy Attorney General Michael Dougherty said it’s a false promise to voters.
“That’s like me telling you the next $2 million dollars I make is going to go to public schools,” he said. Lawmakers chuckled.
Dougherty also said his office is concerned about potential litigation involving employers and employees who use marijuana recreationally.
Vicente said the ballot question provides employers with the flexibility to restrict employee use of the drug. He also responded to concerns from mothers who testified at the hearing who said they were worried children would be exposed to the drug.
“We are not changing the laws for those under 21,” he said.
Still, lawmakers dealt supporters a blow by striking language that listed some arguments in favor of legalization in the blue book, including the argument that marijuana may be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
“They (lawmakers) weren’t particularly open-minded about the amendment today,” Vicente said after the lawmakers acted. “The government is in the business of trying to scare people in order to maintain the failed policy of marijuana prohibition.”
Gina Carbone Fenton, a mother of four who testified against marijuana legalization, said the issue “just really fired me up like none before” and that she worries the drug is becoming more accessible to teenagers.
“Frankly, there’s I think more of a stigma now in smoking a cigarette than there is lighting up a joint,” she said.
Also Wednesday, lawmakers made minor changes to describe questions regarding campaign finance limits and new rules for state employees.