Pubdate: Thu, 06 Aug 2015
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2015 The Denver Post Corp
Author: John Frank


Seattle - To start the discussion, the moderator asked a room full of 
lawmakers from across the country to raise green index cards if their 
state was considering a measure to legalize marijuana.

The hands shot into the air and the color said it all. "A lot of 
green in the room," the moderator observed. "A lot of green."

More than possibly any single forum, the Denver-based National 
Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting this week in Seattle 
is showcasing the nation's robust discussion right now on legalizing marijuana.

Colorado and Washington lawmakers sat in the spotlight Wednesday as 
policy-makers packed a huge room to seek guidance from the two states 
with at least a year of experience in legal pot sales.

But for every lesson learned, other major questions arose - 
particularly when it came to public consumption and policing drugged drivers.

And another factor consistently dominated the conversation: the role 
of the federal government and whether it will crack down on the 
legalization push at the state level.

"I think the fact of the matter is there is too much momentum ... to 
really shut anything down significantly," said House Speaker Pro 
Tempore Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat, at a session dubbed "Legalizing 
Marijuana: Potholes and Possibilities."

Lawmakers from various states said they wanted the federal government 
to give better guidance, and others pointed to the 2016 presidential 
election as a pivotal moment for legal pot.

"Whoever becomes president is going to have a lot to say about how 
the DEA enforces and doesn't enforce, so I think this becomes a huge 
presidential issue," said Florida state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel 
Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat who sponsored legislation to legalize pot.

In roughly 20 states this year, lawmakers proposed bills to legalize 
marijuana for recreational use, and next year a handful of states are 
expected to put the question on the ballot.

Four states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana consumption 
for adults, and another 19 permit medicinal marijuana use, according 
to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan 
organization that tracks state policies.

"It's something that is starting to snowball," said Karen O'Keefe, 
director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a 
pro-legalization organization lobbying at the conference.

In Colorado and Washington, voter initiatives legalized marijuana, 
rather than lawmakers. Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, the 
Republican Senate whip, urged other legislators to get ahead on the 
issue and not leave it to a referendum. "Better to get out in front 
of it, to find your policy and educate people about the policy you 
created, rather than having something foisted on you," she said.

Looking back, Rivers and Pabon suggested that other states 
considering medical marijuana address recreational pot at the same 
time. "If I had to do it all over again, we would just have one 
system" for regulating marijuana, Pabon said, saying it would still 
require different tax structures but would relieve many complications.

The emerging issue in both states, lawmakers told the crowd, is how 
to enforce bans on the public consumption of marijuana.

A legislative effort is expected next year in Colorado to permit 
establishments where people can use marijuana legally. It comes as 
Denver activists push a ballot campaign to allow marijuana 
consumption in bars and clubs that allow people over 21 only.

But this year in Washington, lawmakers went the opposite direction to 
outlaw pot clubs.

Douglas County state Rep. Polly Lawrence, another member of the NCSL 
panel, said she wants a crackdown on public consumption in Colorado.

"It is absolutely sending the wrong message to people who are 
thinking about moving a business to Colorado, for kids who are 
walking down the street, and it's suddenly not a prohibited 
substance," said Lawrence, the assistant House GOP leader. "We really 
need to get a handle on this. ... Why are we not enforcing 
open-consumption laws in Colorado?"

Seattle Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles cautioned the other 
lawmakers against following Washington's path, saying it could have 
unintended consequences. "I think having a club where people can go - 
with state regulations - is a much better approach," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom