Colo. bid to legalize marijuana leads in polls

pot, marijuana, colorado
A worker in a pot dispensary in Colorado

(CBS News) DENVER - While restaurant owners Wanda James and her husband, Scott Durrah, put the final touches on Jezebel's, their new southern-infused restaurant scheduled to open next month in Denver, they are campaigning for Colorado's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use and tax the drug like alcohol.

"If you would like to come home and have a joint and relax with your wife or your husband, I see absolutely no issue with that whatsoever," James said. "There are more ways to relax than just someone having a can of Coors or Jim Beam."

A proposed amendment to Colorado's state constitution, Amendment 64, would make it legal for adults over 21 in Colorado to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. The amendment calls for revenues from marijuana sales and seller license fees to be earmarked for school construction.

A University of Denver poll last week found 50 percent of Colorado voters say they plan to support the initiative. But educators, doctors, businesses, and law enforcement officials are pushing back.

Colorado is already one of 17 states that allow marijuana for medical use. There are more than 500 dispensaries statewide and carefully-monitored growers in an industry which supports more than 4,000 jobs.

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More than 100,000 Coloradans are registered to purchase medical marijuana, with the majority residing in the Denver metropolitan area. The business has paid an average $11 million dollars into state taxes and fees over the past two years, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. The independent Colorado Legislative Council estimates the law would generate an additional $5 million to $22 million in revenue.

"Drugs and kids don't mix," said Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, who rejects the idea of building schools with drug money.

"As an educator and as a parent, I am not comfortable supporting something that I know is harmful to children," Baca-Oehlert said. "Marijuana has impacts, negative impacts, on attention span, brain development, all of these things that impact learning."

The American Academy of Pediatrics said since medical marijuana dispensaries began operating in Colorado, there has been an increase in the number of teens and children treated at hospitals for accidental marijuana ingestion and more fatal cars crashes with drivers under the influence of marijuana.

Officials from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to local police departments worry about the potential conflict with federal laws that still make possessing or growing marijuana a crime.

"We feel that we would be the center of marijuana distribution," said Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink, in Golden, who fears legalization would attract outsiders to grow in Colorado and sell to the rest of the country.

"I lived in Colorado most of my life, and this is not what I think Colorado is all about - is to become the marijuana capital of the United States," Mink said.

Mink cites past federal Justice Department studies that showed 15 percent of state prison inmates were under the influence of marijuana when they committed their crimes. He predicts there will be increased costs for abuse and addiction if the initiative passes.

Mink said: "We're trying to educate and grow young people to be productive citizens, and make healthy choices. Marijuana is not healthy. It's not a healthy choice."

However, Jonathan Singer, a former social worker and drug counselor who has seen the effects of drug abuse up close, says most people who use marijuana do so responsibly.

"Marijuana has a potential just like any other drug to hurt people, and people need to make that informed decision, but this is not cocaine, this is not meth, this is not heroin," said Singer, now a state representative whose district lies north of Boulder.

Singer, the first Colorado legislator to publicly support Amendment 64, compares the illegality of marijuana to the nation's failed experiment with Prohibition.

"We will be a model for thoughtful regulation of a drug that needs to be treated like alcohol," Singer said. "We're not talking pounds of marijuana here. We're talking small amounts for personal use."

While Singer believes legalizing marijuana will weaken drug cartels and be a fiscal plus for the state, he also wants to see tougher criminal penalties imposed on anyone who sells drugs to minors.

"If you commit other crimes while under the influence of marijuana, you are going to be held just as responsible as if you were using alcohol or under the influence of a prescription drug," Singer said.

Colorado's initiative is one of three state referendums this November that could legalize marijuana for recreational use. The others are Washington's Initiative 502 and Oregon's Measure 80.

Proponents of broader marijuana legalization have put the value of the U.S. crop as high as $35 billion annually, arguing that legalizing and taxing it would raise millions of dollars.

Decriminalization is part of the debate. The YES on 64 campaign notes that since 2007 more than 10,000 Coloradans have been arrested every year for marijuana possession, comprising 60 percent of all drug-related arrests in the state. The campaign points out nine percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado are African-American, though blacks make up only four percent of the state's population.

Sherriff Mink said police officers in Colorado usually do not arrest those in possession of even two ounces of marijuana - double what Amendment 64 would allow -- because that is characterized as a misdemeanor.

"We don't throw people in jail for petty offenses," Mink said. The possible fine and jail time become more severe as possession reaches six ounces; possession of 12 ounces is considered a felony in Colorado.

Married restaurateurs James and Durrah once ran a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado called Simply Pure and sold foods with marijuana in them. Durrah has cooked for AIDS and cancer patients and others who prefer cannabis edibles over prescription painkillers. The couple, both military veterans, said they would apply for a license to sell legal marijuana were the initiative to pass.

"For us, it's important that we are accepted on the level of business owners, not drug dealers," Durrah said. "So when 64 passes, we hope Simply Pure will be the first legal retail center here in Colorado."

One day, James said, "We would love to be the first restaurant to be to offer cannabis-infused spaghetti and cannabis-infused mashed potatoes or cannabis-infused birthday cake."

Researcher Abigail Collins contributed to this story.