Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

colorado-denver-capitol

Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, at night. (Photo: EdgeOfReason/Shutterstock)

How to Implement a Policy You Hate: Lessons From the Legalization of Marijuana

• February 17, 2014 • 12:00 PM

Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, at night. (Photo: EdgeOfReason/Shutterstock)

In Colorado, voters very clearly articulated a position, and the government was compelled to follow through with it—like it or not. Is this an example of democracy at its best?

Last week, I attended a roundtable discussion at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law that assessed how the rollout of legal marijuana has been going in Colorado since January 1st. The panel included many of the government officials who were part of the task force that built the regulatory structure, basically from scratch, for the first legal sales of recreational marijuana.

One of the striking things about the discussion was that several members of the task force were clearly uncomfortable with, or even outright opposed to, marijuana legalization. Jack Finlaw, who works as counsel to Governor John Hickenlooper, expressed great reservations about Amendment 64, the constitutional initiative that voters approved in 2012, and noted that the Governor shared those views and had spoken out against the initiative during the election season. Finlaw quoted an unnamed state official who complimented the task force by saying, “You’ve done a really great job implementing bad public policy.”

The Obama administration signaled last year that they would not interfere with legal marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington. Nonetheless, they clearly did not want to enable drug tourism.

You could see this as direct democracy at either its best or its worse. Here, the voters very clearly articulated a position, and the government was compelled to follow through with it. I suppose the government could have stalled for a time, with the governor possibly waiting until after his re-election campaign to implement the policy, and it’s not clear what kind of electoral penalty, if any, he would have paid for that. But the government nonetheless followed through and assembled a legal structure in just a year, putting to shame some other states I might name that legalized marijuana in 2012 but have yet to allow a single sale.

How did they do it? They looked at various state models governing the sale of medical marijuana to see what had worked reasonably well and what seemed largely chaotic (like in California). They conferred with officials in Washington state about how they might be going about the task. They spoke with federal government officials about what they would and wouldn’t allow. (Remember, marijuana is still a schedule one drug under federal law.) It was a very collaborative and informed process.

The reactions from the federal government were particularly interesting. The Obama administration signaled last year that they would not interfere with legal marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington. Nonetheless, they clearly did not want to enable drug tourism, where anyone with a connecting flight through Denver could make a quick stop and grab some pot on their way to their next destination. To mollify this concern, the Colorado team sharply limited the amount of marijuana out-of-staters could buy at one time (just 1/4 of an ounce, as opposed to the ounce that residents may purchase). This, noted Denver law professor Sam Kamin, technically runs against the text of Amendment 64, which states that anyone aged 21 or older may possess up to an ounce. But it was viewed as a necessary compromise to avoid federal interference.

One burning question from audience members was the tax issue—just how much revenue have marijuana sales generated in Colorado? Unfortunately, we just don’t know yet. Sales in January won’t be tabulated until the end of February, and we probably won’t know for another month or so just how much revenue has been raised. What’s more, the status of the industry is scheduled to change over the course of the year as different aspects of the law are rolled out, so it’ll be some time before we have a sense of how good a deal, financially anyway, marijuana is for the Centennial State.

One other concern expressed by the panel was the way Colorado went about legalizing pot—via constitutional amendment. This is relatively easy to do in Colorado (requiring just a majority of the electorate) but makes tinkering with the new law more challenging. Any fine-tuning of the law (maybe reducing the number of plants people may legally grow in their houses) must be done via another constitutional amendment. Washington state, by contrast, effected legalization via statutory initiative, allowing the legislature to make further refinements.

Overall, though, this strikes me as a pretty good example of direct democracy in action. While the initiative process can certainly be abused, taking advantage of voters’ relative ignorance of public policy issues, this was a very straightforward proposition, and surely those who voted for Amendment 64 had a pretty good idea what it meant for the state. It is a credit to the state’s government that they managed to roll out a legal edifice within a year and follow the public’s will in an area where many officials were clearly uncomfortable. I imagine this will serve as a good example of policymaking as other states consider legalization.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.