A newly formed advocacy group in Colorado is adjusting its strategy after a failure to place on the state ballot an initiative that would have sought what many see as much-needed controls on the state's legal marijuana industry.
The Healthy Colorado Coalition will attempt to build an ongoing active resistance to the industry, partly in response to state lawmakers' message that there has been no such presence in the state capital, says Frank McNulty, a former state House speaker and a leading supporter of restrictions on the sale of marijuana products. Advocates last week announced that they were dropping plans to advance proposed initiative 139, which would have asked voters to consider restrictions on marijuana product potency, packaging and labeling.
Supporters of controls cited in their decision the marijuana industry's well-financed attempt to block the effort to collect the needed signatures for the initiative's ballot placement, in part by paying signature gatherers not to do the work. State courts had upheld advocates' effort to advance the ballot initiative in the face of marijuana industry opposition.
“The marijuana industry built a wall of money between us and the November ballot that we simply couldn't break through,” initiative leader Ali Pruitt said in a July 8 news release from Healthy Colorado.
McNulty adds that while advocates have not abandoned the idea of an initiative for the future, they will now focus on efforts to “call out the industry on its lies.” He says there were clear indications that voters would have supported the controls called for in the proposed ballot measure.
“We know that Coloradans are concerned about an out-of-control marijuana industry,” says McNulty. “They want to see reasonable safeguards in place.”
McNulty adds, “It seems that when they voted [to allow recreational use], they wanted to decriminalize marijuana. Survey after survey has said that Coloradans don't want to see people put in jail for marijuana [offenses].” However, he says, “They didn't anticipate the societal costs” associated with allowing recreational use.
Initiative 139 would have taken a multi-pronged approach to protecting the public from what advocates see as the most harmful effects of expanded access to marijuana in Colorado. It would have written into law a requirement for child-resistant packaging on marijuana products; would have mandated health warnings on product labeling; and would have restricted the THC potency on marijuana-containing products to no more than 16%.
McNulty states that the industry's child-friendly marketing of marijuana-containing products, such as candies that resemble conventional top-selling brands, has been one of the most onerous aspects of the industry's behavior. “It's a real problem,” he says.
Given that advocates have talked of unanticipated societal costs of the approval of recreational use, we asked McNulty whether the effects have resembled those that often occur after a state approves major gaming expansion. He replied, “The societal consequences here are worse, because Colorado has become a magnet for folks wanting to do marijuana.”
He adds that law enforcement officials in several Colorado communities have reported that, contrary to expectations, the black market for marijuana actually has gotten more active since the original initiative passed. “The illegal dealers are able to hide behind the legal dealers,” McNulty says. “It is virtually impossible to tell illegal pot from legal.”
On the other side of the debate, the Marijuana Industry Group issued a statement expressing its positive reaction to the ballot initiative's demise. As quoted by the Denver Business Journal, the statement read in part, “We are pleased that the ballot measure has been pulled. The marijuana industry is governed by hundreds of pages of state rules that highly regulate packaging, labeling, growing, harvesting, distribution, sales and a host of other issues to help ensure that those who shouldn't use the product don't have access to it.”