Academics’ Letter of Support for Colorado Amendment 64 – A Marijuana Legalization Initiative

I am one of over 100 academics in various disciplines who signed a letter supporting Colorado Amendment 64, a referendum initiative which would legalize marijuana possession and sales in that state for residents over the age of 21, and generally institute a regulatory regime for marijuana similar to that currently in force for alcohol. The other signatories include fellow VC-ers Randy Barnett and Sasha Volokh, as well as prominent scholars such as MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, Douglas Berman of Ohio State and the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, Tom Ginsburg (University of Chicago Law School), and others. The full text of the letter is available here:

For decades, our country has pursued a policy of marijuana prohibition that has been just as ineffective and wasteful as alcohol prohibition. We have reviewed Amendment 64 and concluded that it presents an effective, responsible, and much-needed new approach for Colorado and the nation.

Marijuana prohibition has proven to be the worst possible system when it comes to protecting teens, driving marijuana into the underground market where proof of age is not required and where other illegal products might be available….

Given our current economic climate, we must evaluate the efficacy of expensive government programs and make responsible decisions about the use of state resources. Enforcing marijuana prohibition is wasting our state’s limited criminal justice resources and eroding respect for the law. Our communities would be better served if the resources we currently spend to investigate, arrest, and prosecute people for marijuana offenses each year were redirected to focus on violent and otherwise harmful crimes….

It is also important to note that Amendment 64 does not change existing laws regarding driving under the influence of marijuana, and it allows employers to maintain all of their current employment and drug-testing policies.

The State of Colorado, as well as our nation, have successfully walked the path from prohibition to regulation in the past. Eighty years ago, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative to repeal alcohol prohibition at the state level, which was followed by repeal at the federal level. This year, we have the opportunity to do the same thing with marijuana and once again lead the nation toward more sensible, evidence-based laws and policies.

In my view, Amendment 64 would leave in place more regulation than is ideal, and I am not fully comfortable with some of the praise for regulation in the draft letter (which I signed, nonetheless, because it does not actually say that this regulated system is superior to more complete deregulation, merely that it’s better than the status quo). That said, the best should not be the enemy of the good, in this case the very good. Amendment 64 would be a huge improvement over the status quo in Colorado.

In 2010, I signed a law professors’ petition in support of California’s similar (and nearly successful) Proposition 19. Most of what I said then applies here too:

Unfortunately, lifting the state ban on marijuana possession will not fully legalize marijuana in California. The federal ban that the Supreme Court upheld in Gonzales v. Raich will remain…..

On the other hand, federal enforcement resources are limited. So Proposition 19 will greatly reduce the incidence of marijuana prosecutions in California, even if the drug remains theoretically illegal there. Perhaps more importantly, passage of Prop 19 would be a major political setback for drug prohibition. A victorious Prop 19 would likely be imitated in other states with referendum initiative processes. That in turn would put the federal War on Drugs under increasing stress. If several large states withdraw state resources from marijuana enforcement, the feds would either have to massively increase their own enforcement efforts or consider giving up the fight. At a time of increasing budgetary problems, the latter option might be more likely.

Colorado is not as large and influential as California, of course. But is still a sizable and politically significant state. A referendum victory there is likely to have significant influence well beyond the state’s borders. Recent poll data suggests that Amendment 64 has at least a fairly good chance of success. I have no illusions that very many voters will change their minds because of this letter. But, hopefully, every little bit helps.

Public support for marijuana legalization has been gradually rising for decades, and recently hit 50 percent for the first time. That bodes well for Amendment 64 and other legalization efforts.

UPDATE [11/6/12]: The link to the polling data indicating that Amendment 64 has a good chance of success seems to have been hijacked by an attack site. So I have removed it. Here is more recent data suggesting that 64 has a good shot.