Monday evening, Colorado lawmakers tried to put a hold on marijuana sales approved by voters as Amendment 64 last November. It was a convoluted legislative maneuver, and went nowhere, but the idea was to tie pot sales to voter approval of a tax on marijuana – in part by giving Amendment 64 supports an incentive to back the tax with the same enthusiasm they brought to legalizing pot.
Marijuana supporters decried the move as an affront to the voters, who approved legalization by 55 percent. And they have a point; elected officials should respect the will of the voters. Few things so infuriate the public as legislators who willfully undo actions initiated by citizens.
Nor should lawmakers be directing their ire at Amendment 64 supporters. A tax on marijuana, and the revenue it could be expected to produce, was one of their prime selling points.
Our legislators should instead look at this as another example of how Colorado’s rules governing ballot measures routinely paint the state into a corner. A renewed push to reform those should be on their minds as the session draws to a close.
The voters initiated and approved Amendment 64 and with that, it became part of Colorado’s Constitution. In the end, the Legislature cannot ignore that.
At the same time, lawmakers quite legitimately worry that the state will set up the legal and bureaucratic structure to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana, but that voters would then reject the tax needed to pay for it. Rather than a fiscal boon, recreational marijuana could become a financial drag on the state.
Amendment 64 supporters clearly envisioned such a tax and wrote into the ballot measure language directing the Legislature to enact an excise tax. But the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires voter approval of any new tax, and under the state’s single-subject rule, that approval could not be part of Amendment 64. So Amendment 64 legalized pot, but could not provide money for its regulation. The presumed vote in the fall will be for a tax with no tie to Amendment 64’s legalization.
It has nothing to do with state ballot measures, but it is worth remembering that President Barack Obama, or any of his successors, can at any moment bring all of this to a halt simply by choosing to enforce existing federal law on marijuana.
There have been efforts in the past to make it more difficult to amend the state Constitution, perhaps by also easing procedures for amending or enacting statutory laws. With the lesson of Amendment 64 fresh on their minds – particularly if whatever tax on the ballot this fall does have trouble – maybe legislators could look at replacing the single-subject rule with a requirement that every ballot measure include funding.
If nothing else, it would give lawmakers less reason to question the voters.