Why the Vote on Recreational Marijuana was More Than a "Yes" or "No"

As I walked around the Presidential Debate Fest at the University of Denver earlier this fall, my friend and I perused the various booths representing every ballot initiative and special interest group relevant to this year’s election. I noticed the Amendment 64 Banner reading “Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol.” Admittedly, I scoffed. It struck me as a message-sending measure, not a reality-changing one. It seemed like a niche issue, appealing to college students and residents of Colorado’s most liberal counties. After chatting with the representatives for a few minutes, I walked away thinking, “What a mistake that would be.” I never imagined the amendment would become law.

 Colorado and Washington voters passed referendums legalizing marijuana for recreational use on Nov. 6.[/caption]However, by the time I stood in my neighborhood Catholic Church on November 6th, facing a touch screen asking me to vote “yes” or “no,” I wasn’t so sure Amendment 64 was a terrible idea. I’d heard the radio spot featuring a police officer saying that Coloradan law enforcement needed to shift its priorities. It was time to stop wasting time and money prosecuting non-violent marijuana users, and instead bring sales into the light of day while funneling tax revenue towards our under-funded school systems. Cell phone canvassers challenged why I thought marijuana prohibition would work when alcohol prohibition was such a disaster. TV ads hounded my family, asking why people should be punished for choosing to enjoy a substance that is “objectively” less harmful than alcohol.

So now, two weeks after ballots were cast in favor of 64, with approximately six weeks until it officially hits the books, other Coloradans and I are evaluating, reasoning, and predicting.

From my informal polling of family, friends, and coworkers (read: people fairly similar to myself) opinion is divided—starkly. Amendment 64 either “makes sense” or the moral integrity of Colorado is in jeopardy. No matter how they voted, most everyone seems shocked the measure passed. Personally, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that six weeks from now I can grow a few plants in the privacy of my own home and in 2014 I will be able to legally purchase weed at the gas station or meet tourists in town for a marijuana trip. Regardless of the longevity of the law as it stands against the federal government, it is obvious Amendment 64 is not a flash-in-the-pan issue.

Like same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana indicates a pendulum swing towards states’ power in our Federalist system. However, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance and, unlike marriage, has not relinquished power to individual states to decide. Though it was not advertised as such, on Nov. 6 Coloradans overtly challenged the federal government to sit up and pay attention to this issue. Many politicians, including the opposed Governor Hickenlooper, responded to the election results with language of “respecting the wishes of the people.” While it is refreshing to have such monumental decisions in the hands of the electorate rather than distant representatives or judges, it is also terrifying—it has forced me to examine who I trust and why.

This trend fits with our understanding of the post-modern worldview that says, “My choices are mine, and mine alone.” As this worldview gains the preference of a larger and larger majority of the electorate, I believe we will continue to see decisions that increase State power, and as a result, a higher emphasis on individual freedom of choice. Whether that is “good” or “bad” remains to be seen, but it does reflect more traditional democratic values. 

Much of foundational American political theory relies on the power of the people and predicts a direct relationship between individual freedom and national flourishing. Those theories will be tested yet again as we determine if increased freedom to respond to marijuana results in a holistically “better” American society.

Aside from political philosophy of the role of government, practical feasibility, and monetary repercussions, I believe there are other questions we should be asking. Regulating pot like alcohol may “make sense” but is it a sound moral decision? Was alcohol chosen because it is a worthy model or because it was an effective marketing strategy? As thoughtful citizens, our political decisions must seriously examine the logical arguments, but we must not stop there. We must ask questions that equations cannot answer. We must resist the temptation of legislating whatever is in vogue, motivated by laziness. As we debate the merits of legalizing marijuana, have we examined our understanding of intoxication and its role in our society? Have we asked what role we desire intoxication to play, and acted accordingly? We have solicited the opinions of politicians and law enforcement officers, but we also ought to ask psychologists and doctors and theologians why humanity demands intoxicating substances. Is funding schools with drug money a strategic win-win, or are we assuaging our collective consciences?

Thankfully, it isn’t too late for those conversations. The ambiguous language of Amendment 64 will force such questions to be asked in legislative halls, in courtrooms, and in police headquarters. As we determine what constitutes substance abuse, how to prohibit work-place intoxication and measure road-side sobriety, marijuana questions will force a drafting of a fuller American philosophy of drugs—one no longer tied to alcohol specifically. Legalizing medical marijuana was the first step in this process, but the legalization of pot for the public demands an entirely different chapter in our philosophy of intoxicating substances.

-Katie Heideman graduated from Gordon College in May 2012 with a degree in communication arts and a minor in business administration. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.