Pot debate finally lives up to billing

Column by Vic Vela

Posted

For much of the legislative session, there was one thought that would enter into my mind, perhaps more than any other: This marijuana stuff is pretty boring.

Seriously. For a drug that's capable of making everyday experiences pretty interesting for a whole lot of people out there — and can make those old Allman Brothers vinyls sound even sweeter — for the most part, covering the Legislature's attempts to regulate the newly legalized retail pot industry had been quite the snooze fest.

So, thank goodness for the last few weeks of the legislative session, which produced a slew of pot activity — including some profound philosophical debates over the regulation of the drug — that managed to put the “Wee!” back in “weed.”

But things surrounding the implementation of Amendment 64 — the voter-approved measure that legalizes recreational marijuana use — sure did start out slow this legislative session. There were committees after committees after committees, many of which started at 7:30 in the morning. Ugh!

And from those hearings emerged super-exciting terms like “vertical integration”; “excise tax”; “egress”; “ingress.” But, I digress.

Thankfully, the last couple of weeks of legislative pot talk made up for all of the months of boring regulatory language, trite marijuana puns and over-used Cheetos references.

Thoroughly entertaining debates over how to tax the drug and where people should be allowed to congregate to smoke it emerged at sessions' end.

And the political lines over those issues became about as blurred as highway lines might appear to a stoner on his way home from a String Cheese Incident show at Red Rocks.

“It's been all over the place,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, in a recent interview. Singer was the sponsor of House Bill 1318, which puts in place an Amendment 64 taxation model.

Singer said it was “refreshing” to see that debates over marijuana knew no political boundaries.

“Ninety percent of the folks here have this really open mind about it, like, `So, what do you think?',” Singer said. “And my answer is, `I don't know, what do you think?' And were figuring it out together.”

Breaking news: Republicans don't like taxes. And they, like many people, don't like drugs. So what was fascinating to observe over the last couple of weeks of the session was members of the Grand Old Party arguing in favor of lowering tax rates on retail marijuana sales. Their argument was sound — they didn't want the drug taxed too high, out of fear that the black market would benefit.

But the irony is that the end result of lowering taxes on marijuana makes it cheaper for people to buy drugs! That irony was not lost on Singer.

“The traditional conservative argument for less taxes kind of steps in the way for the traditional conservative argument for less drugs. So, how do we balance that?” Singer said. “Same thing on the progressive side. There's people on that side worried about social factors of drug addiction and the social factors of incarcerating people because of drugs.

“It's a little off kilter.”

You can say that again. Case in point was a fascinating debate in the Senate over whether the state should allow the existence of marijuana clubs, where people could have a common place to enjoy the drug, like “Cheers” for pot smokers. Wouldn't you like to get away?

This issue sure made for some strange political bedfellows. Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, joined forces with Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, to propose an amendment to one of the marijuana regulation bills, that would have treated marijuana clubs like cigar bars — only they wouldn't be allowed to actually buy the drugs there, just smoke them.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argued in favor of Steadman's amendment — which, now that I think about it, could very well be the first time that a Colorado legislative reporter has ever written that sentence. Awesome!

“The last thing you want them to do is to hang out in a back alley and smoke it,” Marble said on the Senate floor recently.

Democratic Sens. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge and Gail Schwartz of Snowmass opposed the pot club amendment, along with Sen. Larry Crower, a Republican from Alamosa.

“Kool-Aid is legal, but do we need a place to drink Kool-Aid?” Crowder quipped during a recent Senate debate. “If you want to go to a party that has it, then go ahead and smoke it.”

See what I mean? Pretty cool, eh?

“The political lines are blurred, in some sense, in the Republican caucus (on this issue),” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, in a recent interview. “This topic cuts across party lines and philosophic lines that are really complex.”

By the time this column hits Colorado Community Media's papers, the General Assembly should have already wrapped up work on the implementation of Amendment 64 regulations.

Jahn said she's learned a lot about marijuana over the course of the session.

“I know more about this than I thought I ever wanted to know,” Jahn told me. “Who would've thought? However, if you really look back at over the last five or 10 years, you could really see it's been moving this way and the attitudes in Colorado and through the country have really changed.”

That may be true. But legislators like Gardner — who opposed Amendment 64 — would just as soon be talking about something else.

“I've heard more marijuana testimony than I have on any other subject in the General Assembly,” Gardner said. “That is astounding to me. I never thought it was something that was a good use of our time, but we have no choice.”

Vic Vela is the legislative reporter for Colorado Community Media. Email Vic at: vvela@ourcoloradonews.com. Also, follow Vic's legislative updates on Twitter: @VicVela1