As proponents of a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana near the deadline to turn in signatures, they face a puzzling picture of the electorate.
An independent poll this summer found a slender majority of Coloradans support legalizing cannabis. But whenever marijuana has actually appeared on the ballot in Colorado in recent years — most commonly as measures to ban dispensaries and other marijuana businesses — it has generally fared poorly.
Voters in 33 cities and towns — including three earlier this month — have now decided to ban medical-marijuana businesses in their communities. Voters in nine counties have decided to do the same for unincorporated areas of their counties.
When that’s combined with the 44 cities and 30 counties that have banned dispensaries through ordinance, more than 2 million people in Colorado — about 43 percent of the statewide population — live in areas where marijuana businesses are not allowed, according to a Denver Post analysis of lists provided by the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc.
By contrast, only a handful of times have measures to ban dispensaries been unsuccessful at the polls — most notably last year, when El Paso County voters narrowly rejected a ban.
Mason Tvert, one of the leaders of the legalization effort, which calls itself the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said he has seen the election results but is undaunted. Next year — a presidential election year — will draw a wider slice of Coloradans to the polls than the elections at which the dispensary bans were decided, Tvert said.
“We expect far more voters to come out and the results to better reflect the views of voters when it comes to marijuana,” Tvert said.
But Ray Martinez, who this year led a successful effort to ban dispensaries in Fort Collins, said the explosion of dispensaries since the passage of Colorado’s medical-marijuana law has proved a cautionary tale for Colorado voters.
“It will cause people to pause and rethink their vote, if nothing else,” Martinez said.
Like Colorado medical-marijuana law, the legalization proposal is two-tiered.
One tier would remove all legal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults. A second tier would allow for licensed pot shops to sell marijuana but would also allow communities to ban such stores.
The campaign has collected about 125,000 signatures, Tvert said, and has until January to collect more. It will need about 86,000 verified signatures to make the 2012 ballot.
In August, a Public Policy Polling survey found 51 percent of voters in Colorado support marijuana legalization, compared with 38 percent opposed. But the polling firm cautioned, in announcing the results on its blog, that a failed 2010 legalization effort in California also showed majority support ahead of the election.
“There’s a long road ahead,” the firm wrote.
Tvert said he agrees. But he said he also sees no reason why people who don’t support marijuana businesses won’t support legalization.
“These are two different issues,” he said. “… I think a lot of people in Colorado likely support ending prohibition, but they might believe their town is not ready for those types of businesses.”
Beverly Kinard, who founded an organization that successfully fought a 2006 statewide legalization effort, said she doubts that. The more people have been exposed to information about marijuana in recent years, she believes, the more they have come to think that legalization is the wrong path.
“We have a lot more people out there who are far more educated now because of 2006,” she said.
John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or [email protected]