The voters of Colorado did the right thing last year.
One year ago, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order ratifying the overwhelming victory Amendment 64, the nation’s first statewide vote to end marijuana prohibition. At that moment the personal use, possession and home-cultivation of small amounts of marijuana became legal in the Centennial State for adults 21 years of age and older.
The headlines over the last year have understandably focused on the implementation of Amendment 64’s unprecedented framework to regulate and tax sales of marijuana to adults. After all, Amendment 64 doesn’t simply remove criminal penalties; it creates the world’s first legal market for marijuana, licensing cultivation, processing and retail outlets. Reducing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana does not alone address the inherent harms of prohibition – the enormous unregulated market, the unequal application of the laws, especially for people of color, and unregulated products of unknown potency and quality. Moreover, creating a state-based market for legal marijuana sales raised the prospect of a direct conflict with federal prohibition. That issue however was basically settled when the Department of Justice issued guidelines in August that gave Colorado a cautious green light to proceed without imminent threat of interference by the feds.
In the midst of all the attention-grabbing focus on regulation and new tax revenue, we shouldn’t forget that Amendment 64 removed criminal penalties and increased personal freedom for Coloradans. A year ago the regime of marijuana prohibition in Colorado was forever changed. Law enforcement and judicial culture and policies adapted to the will of the people.
According to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, by removing criminal penalties the state has saved anywhere from $12 million to $40 million dollars over the last year. (Others have estimated the state spends over $60 million enforcing marijuana prohibition at the levels now legal, so the CCLP estimate is probably on the conservative side.) Over the last decade, the state has averaged over 10,000 arrests and citations per year for minor marijuana possession at the levels now legal in the state.
Because of Amendment 64 and the simple decriminalization of marijuana in the state over the last year, 10,000 primarily young adults will likely not be hindered by the collateral consequences of a drug charge. Noxious racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement will also likely decrease dramatically. In places like Arapahoe County, whose population is 10 percent black, African Americans comprised 35 percent of minor marijuana arrests. In Denver, blacks were almost four times as likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana possession, even though they are no more likely to use marijuana than whites. In the metro area, Latinos were twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana despite rates of consumption actually lower than both whites and blacks.
Nationally we average over 750,000 marijuana arrests each year — something like one every 37 seconds — nearly half of all drug arrests in the country. Almost 90 percent of these arrests are for simple possession for personal use, not sale or manufacture. Police make far more arrests for marijuana possession each year than for all violent crimes combined. Colorado has removed itself from this immense waste of resources, and life altering criminal justice consequences, that persistently defines marijuana prohibition.
The voters of Colorado did the right thing last year. They helped lead the nation to a new way to control marijuana, focus scarce law enforcement resources and increase fairness in the criminal justice system. We don’t have to wait to celebrate this New Year’s Day when legal sales of marijuana begin. We mark this one-year anniversary of hard-won freedoms and declare that Colorado has already won.
Art Way is the Senior Drug Policy Manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).