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Colorado is the pot pioneer, but will California lead the future? 

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click to enlarge The weed capital of America could move West. - LEEISME123 / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

The legalization movement scored some big wins on election night.

California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada said "yes" to recreational pot, while Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota OK'd medical marijuana. As it happens, much of the language in these newly enacted measures mirrors Colorado's original pillars of marijuana reform — Amendment 64 and Amendment 20.

One reason for the similarities: Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project helped draft both Colorado's initiatives and those that ran in Maine, Nevada, Arizona and Massachusetts. But shared authorship aside, Tvert says, "Generally, there are only so many ways you can write these laws and write them correctly. I don't know if it's necessarily that they're based on Colorado as it is that they're based on being done correctly, which it was in Colorado."

The correct way, according to Art Way of the Drug Policy Alliance, another reform policy veteran, is to decriminalize then legalize and normalize. "These states [Colorado and Washington] decriminalize — that is, provide for individual sovereignty and freedoms in the form of decriminalization — and then establish a tax and regulatory framework," he says. He adds that the method worked so well in Colorado that, "that's basically what we've seen across the country since."

That said, Way doesn't believe Colorado's approach to drug policy reform was perfect. On the contrary, he singled out California's Proposition 64 as "the model legislation when it comes to legalization at the moment." He hopes California's — not Colorado's — law will become the new standard for adult-use legislation of the future. That's because Prop 64 contains provisions that open up the industry to smaller players and those with prior drug offenses — an attempt to repair racial and economic inequities perpetuated by the War on Drugs. The legislation does that by offering a micro license that calculates fees based on size of the business. Thus, the initial capital needed to break into the industry won't be as big a barrier as it is in Colorado, where getting in the game can mean throwing down an investment in the millions. Prop 64 also wades into restorative justice by retroactively turning marijuana felonies into misdemeanors, which could free thousands of inmates from the state's prisons.

"All of the social justice pieces that are present in California's law are lacking in Colorado," Way comments. "The drafters of the California bill, which included the Drug Policy Alliance, were able to look at the first couple of years in Colorado and Washington, see the potential pitfalls, and make the proper adjustments."

But the absence of these social justice pieces and their associated pitfalls in Colorado's adult-use law wasn't necessarily intentional. Rather, it was a product of our more stringent ballot initiative rules.

"We have something called the single-subject rule, where you can really only cover one thing," Way says. "It was difficult enough, especially being that we were first, to both cover decriminalization of marijuana and the establishment of a regulatory framework."

Still, state lawmakers here have so far failed to make significant moves toward social justice reforms in Colorado. The industry remains dominated by rich, white males at the top and businesses continue to consolidate into the hands of a few big power players. The legislature could open up the industry to people with prior drug offenses — treating pre-legalization marijuana convictions as more a resumé-booster than a character flaw — or provide easier pathways to sealing or expunging old criminal records that hamper employment, housing and educational opportunities. But, unlike in California where these issues were handled preemptively, Colorado hasn't taken care of what couldn't fit into Amendment 64 under the single-subject rule.

For now, Way says, "I still think Colorado and Washington represent the ground floor of marijuana legislation, and California represents where we are headed in the future and what we have learned from Colorado and Washington."

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