(This excerpt from the book A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition is part of a package on the ten-year anniversary of adult use cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington. You can read the other stories here.)
Another prohibition is ending. On November 6, 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington were the first in the world to successfully challenge nearly a century of bad policy and misconceptions about cannabis.
In downtown Seattle, the Hotel Ändra was dressed white and blue, the team colors of Washington State’s Initiative 502 campaign. Supporters hoping for a victory, cannabis legalization, walked into a smartly decorated ballroom and picked up bumper stickers and pins. Activists and politicians anxiously buzzed about to pass the hours. Alison Holcomb, then drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington State and the woman leading the state’s legalization push, wore a black blazer and fuchsia shirt. She paced and whispered to her colleagues, scouring tablet screens for clues long before votes had been counted. At this early point in the night, the expressions on the brunette’s angular face moved so fluidly between nervousness, confusion, and excitement that it was difficult for photographers to capture a representative portrait.
Around 7 p.m., the owner of one of the largest and most successful medical cannabis dispensaries in the country arrived. Steve DeAngelo was unmistakable even in a crowd, with his signature long, tight pigtail braids and dark fedora. He listened as a woman stood closely and told her story. DeAngelo got that a lot. Earlier that year, he was the star of his own Discovery Channel show, Weed Wars. His two Harborside Health Centers are in the Bay Area, but he had a soft spot for Seattle. Just a few months before, he had spoken at Seattle’s well-known Hempfest, attended by tens of thousands each year. “I’ve been working on this issue for my entire life. . . . And I know tonight, when 502 passes, that there’s going to be a whole lot of angels dancing in heaven,” DeAngelo said, his eyes flooding. “It’s not very often that I find myself at a loss for words, but I’m grasping to describe the magnitude of the emotion that I’m dealing with right now.”
Meanwhile, 1,330 miles away at Denver’s Casselman’s Bar and Venue, hundreds of Amendment 64 supporters squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, increasingly unable to remain composed in front of the many live cameras. It could have been a St. Patrick’s Day gathering; many people wore green, in one way or another. A man in an emerald dress shirt held a green and white yes on 64 sign. He walked up to Mason Tvert, a face of the Amendment 64 campaign, and extended the sign. Tvert scrawled his signature, handed back the memento, and smiled sheepishly before walking away to fix his red tie.
In the previous five years, the Rocky Mountain state’s medical cannabis industry had grown faster and more sophisticated than any other, earning a feature on 60 Minutes and its own National Geographic show, American Weed. The state’s nearly seven hundred dispensaries had grossed $186 million in sales and paid the state $5.4 million in sales taxes from mid-2011 to mid-2012. Dispensary owners had combined typical American ingenuity and science to propel cannabis into the future. Using a process similar to coffee decaffeination, they had created a cannabis extract and stuffed it into a simple and smokeless e-cigarette-like contraption; it looked like the intersection of Venice Beach and Apple. Colorado was serious about cannabis.
Nearby, a woman and man embraced and smiled calmly. By the time 9 percent of precincts had reported and people saw the numbers from KDVR Fox31 Denver, there was loud whistling, clapping, and yelling: Amendment 64 was ahead 52 percent to 48. As the imminent reality of cannabis legalization swept the room, the racket swelled to a roar. A man repeatedly cheered and pumped his arms as if trying to lasso something.
When it appeared a final call might soon be made, people took photographs and videos; hugs abounded. A man who sported a tie-dyed shirt and a balding crown with long hair dangling past his nape walked around aimlessly. Near the cameras, a lady with a foam cannabis leaf over her hand joined a guy who smiled, mouth agape, and made the “hang loose” sign to whoever tuned in to watch the revelry. This man with impressive sideburns held a yes on 64 sign above his head and beamed. The rounds of high fives were never-ending.
It was a celebration to remember. The crowd began to chant “Sixty-four! Sixty-four! Sixty-four!” They punched the air with clenched fists and clapped along to “Co-lor-a-do.” Finally, Tvert took the stage. The room quieted.
“I’m so proud to be up here saying that we are standing in the first state in our nation—” The crowd noise drowned out his speech. Tvert tried again. “For a lot of people, it’s always been very difficult to talk about this issue. And hopefully tonight, after this initiative has passed and demonstrated that a majority of Coloradans think it’s time to end marijuana prohibition, people will not be scared anymore. . . . To know that, come this time next year, there will not be ten thousand arrests for marijuana is a good, good feeling.” The whooping and merriment continued.
For the first time, in the state of Colorado, ten thousand people would not be handcuffed, taken to a police station, and charged for simple cannabis possession. Ten thousand people would not have their permanent records tarnished by a misdemeanor drug charge. Ten thousand people would not have to explain that possession charge to a potential employer or landlord.
Brian Vicente, a lawyer who advocated for medical cannabis in Colorado for nearly a decade and helped draft Amendment 64, took the stage. “Tonight we made history. This is something you’re going to tell your kids about,” Vicente said. “Marijuana prohibition started in 1937. The first person arrested was in Colorado.” The crowd booed. “Colorado fucking turned this thing around tonight.” And with the f-word came gaiety.
Back in Seattle, Holcomb stood at a podium. Voters in Colorado had decided in favor of cannabis: Amendment 64 had passed. Holcomb looked stunned, but happy. She rallied the people before her. “I don’t know how you guys feel about being number two, but I would be okay with that,” she joked.
Until that moment, the question was whether one of these initiatives would pass. Now there was potential for two. Still, there was no relief from the tension. An initial report from King County showed that, with approximately 250,000 ballots returned, Initiative 502 was trailing slightly at 49.23 percent to 50.77. Several people groaned. The mood dampened. “It’s all right,” someone yelled. “Oh, wait a second, they also have Mitt Romney winning at this point,” Holcomb laughed. “So these obviously are early ballots. . . . I think, hopefully, we’re going to see these numbers improve as the night goes on.”
Many key supporters of cannabis legalization—some expected, some, including Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, perhaps atypical—surrounded Holcomb in anticipation.
“There are? There are numbers? Let’s see, let’s see, let’s see,” Holcomb said, away from the microphone. “Make way for the screen! We’re going to get some results. Oh, you guys are kill- ing me. It’s killing me.” The vote percentages popped up on the screen. Holcomb struggled to make an announcement while everyone in the room swiped at their smartphones and tablets.
“All right, I’m looking at something on a phone right here that’s for King County that says Initiative 502 in King County has earned 63.82 percent of the vote.” The cheering and applause doubled. The most populous county in Washington had voted yes, and the rest of the state would likely follow.
“Thank you, thank you all. Thank you. All right, I’m going to go ahead and just give my victory speech right now because I can’t—” Holcomb said, her speech broken by an ovation. “I am so proud and so humbled to stand among the voters of the great state of Washington who have this day taken an historic vote. I am so proud of the very careful consideration, the very thoughtful reflection, and the very robust and animated conversation that has gone on around this groundbreaking decision. And ultimately, I’m most proud that, despite controversy and uncertainty, Washington State exhibited tremendous leadership in reexamining a failed policy and being willing to examine promising alternatives.
“Today, the state of Washington looked at seventy-five years of a national marijuana prohibition and said it is time for a new approach,” she continued. The state of Colorado felt the same way. And for the first time in history, so did 50 percent of Americans.
Roger Roffman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, cannabis-dependence treatment professional, and co-sponsor of Initiative 502, took the podium and said, “Finally, we are about to harness what we’ve learned through science. New marijuana tax dollars will flow to communities throughout our state for drug prevention programs that work. We’ll also see new revenues for education about marijuana that is based on science, not on ideology. . . . We will begin using data rather than wishful thinking to measure how well our efforts to prevent marijuana harm actually work . . . because marijuana tax revenues will be allocated to evaluation and research.”
Washington’s Initiative 502 campaign was known for the diverse group it brought together in support of cannabis reform, uniting everyone from hippies to politicians to travel guide Rick Steves. At the podium that night, Steves was as dynamic as when he hosts his television series Rick Steves’ Europe. Steves tells his mostly middle-aged American audience to be “temporary locals,” and they listen, because he’s charming and seems like a peer. Steves hosted a series of roundtable discussions with Holcomb called “Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation,” which no doubt helped pass the initiative.
“I’ll tell you one thing, the whole country is going to wake up tomorrow and look at Washington State and Colorado,” Steves said, “and recognize that this is the beginning of taking apart prohibition one state at a time.”
Just before 9 p.m., the Seattle Times finally made the call that Initiative 502 passed. When it all became certain, Holcomb simply added, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know if you’re aware of what’s just happened, but effective December 6, 2012, if you are an adult twenty-one or older in the great state of Washington, you can no longer be arrested for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana.” General mayhem ensued. “May I remind you, however, that I said December 6. Proceed at your own risk,” she laughed and stepped away from the microphone.