November 12, 2014
In recent years, residents of highly conservative Colorado Springs have increasingly supported the legalization of recreational marijuana. While Republicans nationwide are largely opposed to it, Colorado Springs’ conservative population argues that legalization means greater independence from the federal government and is a more effective way of fighting crime. More importantly, residents have argued in town hall meetings, the well-documented economic benefits gained in other parts of Colorado from taxing recreational marijuana and decreasing “wasteful” government spending means that legalization needs to be the next step forward.
Gallup polls show that most Republicans across the nation do not support legalization; Mitt Romney, former presidential nominee, called marijuana a “gateway drug” that should be criminalized even if used for medical purposes. As Kristen Wyatt from the Huffington Post reported, Paul Ryan was pressured to take back his words by his campaign after he told a news station at Colorado Springs that it was “up to Coloradans to decide” whether medical marijuana should be sold. Later, Ryan said that he agreed with Mitt Romney’s position of enforcing federal law.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when Colorado Springs voted against the predecessor of Amendment 64, Amendment 44, eight years ago; it was Amendment 44’s most severe loss in the state. As voter registration statistics show, Colorado Springs is 2-to-1 Republican and Amendment 44, like 64, was a ballot measure that would decriminalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. But in 2012, in a surprising turnaround, residents voted in favor of Amendment 64 by 4,947 votes. The only reason why the sale of recreational marijuana has not been legalized is because Val Snider, council member at-large, swung the City Council’s vote against Amendment 64.
Undaunted, many residents of Colorado Springs continue to back legalization and vow to continue the fight. The example of Denver, where political strategist Rick Ridder told Reuters that legalized marijuana sales will bring in $20 to $80 million in annual tax revenue, had influenced many residents to reconsider their opposition to legalization. Even closer to home, neighboring Manitou Springs chose to legalize marijuana and is now enjoying its highest sales tax collections in the last six years, as Stephen Hobbs from The Gazette reports. Mark Slaugh, president of Every Vote Counts, a group that grew in strength at the wake of the City Council’s decision, writes in his blog about his economic credentials and his certainty that legalizing marijuana would revitalize the economy- and democracy.
These high levels of support for legalization have been unprecedented on many levels. Legalization is usually sought after in liberal-leaning areas, and Colorado Springs is often cited as one of the most conservative cities in America- it is the center of the Evangelical movement, holds the highest number of churches per capita, and has a huge military presence due to its Air Force Academy.
But Republicans of Colorado Springs have advocated for legalization by using conservative or nonpartisan, not liberal, rhetoric. They argue that enforcing federal law would deny states their independence. The call for “States’ Rights!” has been an instrumental part of the legalization movement. They also argue that legalizing marijuana would decrease wasteful government spending. Their tax money would no longer be used to arrest, try and criminalize people who used marijuana. In addition, legalization would decrease crimes associated with the black market. Tom Tancredo, a Republican and former Representative of Colorado, called marijuana prohibition a “failed government program” that “steers Colorado money to criminals in Mexico”.
These arguments show that conservatism and legalization are not incompatible. If Republicans in one of the most conservative cities in America have come to accept arguments in favor of legalization, it might not be as partisan an issue as some might think. But residents of Colorado Springs might not have their vote heard for some time; Mayor Steve Bach told The Gazette that he would veto the Act even if the City Council approved it. Even so, the couching of Amendment 64 in Republican rhetoric might provide an example to other conservative places in America that look to reap the economic benefits of legalization.