***UPDATE: Ballot measures in Colorado and Washington passed Tuesday, while voters rejected a similar proposal in Oregon.
Several states in the U.S. will vie to become the first in the nation to legalize marijuana Tuesday, and, coming off of the heels of Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan’s announcement last week that his city would not enforce a pot ban on tourists, some are seeing the potential for a New World rival.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana, but voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will decide Tuesday whether to approve ballot measures that would legalize the drug outright and defy federal efforts to curb the trend.
Oregon’s Measure 80 will likely fail, but Washington and Colorado may just stir the pot this election cycle.
According to the latest Public Policy Polling survey, 52 percent of voters in Colorado support Amendment 64, which legalizes marijuana, while only 44 percent are opposed. The poll also found that 56 percent favored the legalization of marijuana in general, while just 39 percent said it should remain illegal.
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Under the amendment, marijuana would be taxed and regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco, and sales of up to an ounce would be available to adults 21 and older. Analysts have projected that the state could generate anywhere from $5 to $22 million a year, while pro-marijuana groups project as much as a $60 million boost by 2017.
The ski town of Breckenridge is already known as the “Amsterdam of the Rockies” because it decriminalized marijuana possession in 2010. Proponents of Amendment 64 say it will not only earn the state money, but also make it attractive to visitors, as has been the case in the popular ski town.
Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, disagrees.
“Tourism is the second largest industry in both Denver and Colorado,” he said. “We are concerned that if Colorado receives international media attention as the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana in their constitution, Colorado’s brand will be damaged and we may attract fewer conventions and see a decline in leisure travel.”
Scharf added that it could hurt the local economy and the state’s chances of attracting future world-class events.
Tourism supports 137,000 jobs and generates $9.4 billion in spending every year in Colorado. This number far outweighs any potential money earned from marijuana taxes, and Scharf figures each Colorado household would have to pay $394 more in taxes every year if it wasn’t for tourism’s vital contribution to the state.
But that’s the question: Will legalizing marijuana draw people in or scare them away?
Over in Washington, travel guru Rick Steves became a spokesman for the campaign to legalize marijuana, organizing a 10-city tour of the state to explain why a businessman such as himself would vote yes on Initiative 502.
“Because of my travels, I find myself one of the most high-profile people in the country advocating the reform of our nation's marijuana laws,” Steves says on his website. “I am certainly not ‘pro-drugs.’ I simply appreciate how much of Europe treats its drug problems in a pragmatic way, with success measured by harm reduction rather than incarceration. While in the U.S.A. 80,000 people are in jail for marijuana charges, in parts of Europe discreetly smoking a joint is just another form of relaxation.”
Washington’s Initiative 502, which would allow residents over 21 to buy pot from stores licensed and regulated by the state liquor board, looks likely to pass Tuesday, possibly by a double-digit margin.
Yet, any approved ballot measure will likely face a “Constitutional showdown” with the federal government.
Will Washington or Colorado become the next Amsterdam? We’ll find out Tuesday night.