Note: This is the final part of the self-publication of Nick Johnson's "'Rocky Mountain High,'" an original article chronicling the history of cannabis in Colorado, completed as part of a course requirement at Colorado State in the spring of 2013.
When California became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana with a ballot initiative in 1996, marijuana advocates in Colorado took notes. They turned away from the state legislature that had failed them in the 1970s, and instead concentrated on putting medical marijuana to a public vote. Colorado was the first state to amend its constitution to allow for a medical marijuana industry.[i] Marijuana could now legally make people rich, and this ushered in the era that marijuana documentarist Trish Regan has called the “Green Rush”: Just as they did for gold in the mid nineteenth-century, people from all over the country flocked to states like California and Colorado and made cities like Denver, which now has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks locations, into marijuana Meccas.[ii]
As the medicinal industry boomed and public support for marijuana prohibition waned in the twenty-first century, Coloradans looking to legalize marijuana outright saw an opportunity. As political scientist Kathleen Ferraiolo argues, the medicinal marijuana campaigns succeeded because they “crafted an alternative frame of marijuana that emphasized not crime, deviance, and violence, but health, patient rights, and compassion.”[iii] Similarly, Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, and others working to legalize marijuana in 2012 called their efforts the “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.”[iv]
Since it arrived in the bags of Mexican immigrants in the early twentieth century, marijuana has made its mark on the people and landscapes of the Centennial State. Sixty-four years ago, the state of Colorado had a hand in framing and locking away a decorated veteran for possessing marijuana. Now, were he alive, not only would Leo Acosta not have to worry about being duped into a dope deal, but he could legally obtain the drug in almost the exact same way, in almost the exact same place, that he ordered a beer in 1948. For those still pondering this drastic swing in state policy, the long history of marijuana in Colorado may provide some answers. Almost as soon as it arrived, marijuana forced many residents to acknowledge and interact with it. For more than a century Coloradans planted it, smoked it, bought and sold it, burned it, pulled it, and bred it, until a large number of them came to care about it. When their elected officials did not share their concerns, Coloradans put marijuana to a vote themselves. This co-evolution of attitude and plant fostered an electoral environment in Colorado in November 2012 that Leo Acosta and others could never have imagined in 1948. Coloradans certainly do not agree about many aspects of marijuana; they never have, and they most likely never will. But whether they like it or not, citizens of the Centennial State can no longer avoid the fact that cannabis, specifically marijuana, is a significant part of their heritage.
[i] Breathes, “History of Cannabis in Colorado …”
[ii] Trish Regan, Joint Ventures: Inside America’s Almost Legal Marijuana Industry (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 4.
[iii] Kathleen Ferraiolo, “From Killer Weed to Popular Medicine: The Evolution of American Drug Control Policy, 1937-2000”(Journal of Policy History 19: April 2007), 166.
[iv] John Ingold, “The inside story of how marijuana became legal in Colorado,” The Spot for Politics and Policy, Denver Post, December 28, 2012, http://blogs.denverpost.com/thespot/2012/12/28/story-marijuana-legal-colorado/87640/ (Accessed May 8, 2013).