Ten years ago this month, Colorado voters did something that had never been done before in the world: They legalized the use and sale of marijuana at the state level.
Technically, voters in Washington state passed a legalization measure on the same day, Nov. 6, 2012, but Colorado can plausibly claim to be first because polls here closed earlier and stores began selling here earlier, as well.
The vote sparked a revolution around the world in cannabis policy — an area long seen as intractable. In states across the country and in other nations, “never gonna happen” changed rapidly to “happening right now.” Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories have now passed legalization laws. Five more states have legalization initiatives on the ballot this year, with a sixth poised for a vote early next year.
President Joe Biden has issued pardons and moved to evaluate whether cannabis should be reclassified in federal drug laws. None of this would have happened without what first happened in Colorado, activists say.
“What you did changed the country,” Toi Hutchinson, the president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, said at an anniversary event last month at the History Colorado Center.
But, Colorado’s history-making decision actually reaches beyond that. It shows how policy can change quickly under the right circumstances, how a handful of brash, dedicated people operating, at least initially, with limited resources can dramatically shift the conversation around long-deadlocked issues. It shows how seeds can sprout and grow so vigorously that not even the people who planted them could foresee what they would become. It shows how a new status quo isn’t necessarily settled — that 10 years later, the debate over what we did in the state and whether it worked is still as fierce as ever.
The following oral history was compiled through interviews with the people who fought for and against Amendment 64, as well as comments made at the anniversary event last month. In some cases, the quotes have been lightly edited for brevity and readability without changing the meaning or context.
The campaign to legalize cannabis in Colorado didn’t begin in 2012. After initial successes passing a medical marijuana law in 2000, the legalization movement got its biggest boost in 2005, when young activists who had worked briefly together for the national Marijuana Policy Project — Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente — moved to Colorado to lead two separate campaigns.
The pair are a study in contrasts. Tvert says Vicente is “the David Spade to my Chris Farley.” But another apt comparison are the characters played by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in the movie “Superbad.”
Tvert is mischievous and often profane. When excited, he speaks in quick bursts of sentences, thoughts pouring forth like water from an open hydrant. Vicente is reserved, laconic. He moves quietly, and you get the impression that no word leaves his mouth without being run through a dozen different checkpoints in his brain.
Brian Vicente, former head of Sensible Colorado, now a co-founder of the Vicente Sederberg law firm: I met with my career guidance counselors at DU law school, and they said it was career suicide. It would be like a red X that would follow me on my résumé forever. And then my parents were not enormously supportive. I had just graduated law school and was working for the Marijuana Policy Project for $2,000 a month without benefits. They were kind of like, “What are you doing?”
Mason Tvert, former head of SAFER, now a partner with VS Strategies consulting firm: I remember my parents very specifically, when Brian and I first met in 2004 working on harassing a congressman in Arizona, them saying, “So do you think this is, like, going to actually be a job?”
Vicente: What kind of got me into this is the fact that we were arresting people for cannabis. That just struck me as so crazy.
Tvert: One day, Steve Fox (a former lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project) said to me, “I’ve got this idea. And we might be able to get funding for it as a pilot project, but you’d have to live in Colorado or maybe Wisconsin.” Because we were looking at states with a lot of colleges and a lot of alcohol-related problems. The whole thing was around highlighting the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol. And initially, the plan was to do that on college campuses. It started at CU and CSU because Samantha Spady and Gordie Bailey had both died from alcohol overdoses in the fall of 2004. Wisconsin had also had some alcohol-related deaths recently and was a big part of the binge drinking discussion. But we decided they don’t have a medical marijuana law yet. We don’t want to interfere with that. Colorado’s got a medical marijuana law; the conversation is moving on. So this will be a better place to do it.
Vicente: To have two nonprofits in the state of Colorado working on marijuana reform that were both pretty skeletally funded, I remember us making a determined effort to work together. Let’s just find our lanes and work together.
A provocative style
The two quickly settled into a push-pull strategy to change how people thought about cannabis and about what was possible in Colorado. At SAFER, Tvert tried to push the public to reassess marijuana’s potential for harm. At Sensible Colorado, Vicente pulled cannabis regulations along, winning victories that created licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and the legal framework upon which legalization would eventually rest.
The pair also launched a number of ballot measure campaigns, some successful and some not. Initiative 100, which in 2005 legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults under Denver city ordinances, passed. Amendment 44, a statewide legalization amendment in 2006, failed.
But what really drew attention to the pair’s efforts were the outrageous political stunts Tvert pulled, which became a hallmark of Colorado marijuana campaigns. In Tvert’s telling, these were mostly the ideas of Steve Fox, a lobbyist and strategist at the Marijuana Policy Project, which provided funding for the campaigns. Fox died last year.
Tvert: I’m the very stereotypical, risk-averse Jewish dude. I don’t ski. I, you know, hold the railing (when going down stairs). So this was my K2 or whatever. I remember confronting (former Denver mayor John) Hickenlooper for the first time, and he had no idea what was going on. I was at some community event because I was making the rounds going to everything. He’s walking around just shaking hands. And I was holding this (voice) recorder. I’m like, “Hey, as you may be aware, we’re working to put a marijuana issue on the ballot.” And he was like, “Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s a gateway drug.” And then he’s like, “Wait a minute, is that a recorder?” And then, you know, it just became fun. We were causing trouble for speakers, harassing them all over town and trying to change the way people think about marijuana.
Michael Hancock, former Denver City Council member, now mayor of Denver: When I think back 10 years ago, all I remember is I was ready to box Mason Tvert. I said, If I catch him on Bannock (Street), we’re boxing. We’re going to go right here, right now.
Tvert: Steve had me going to the DEA office and holding a news conference in their lobby. We held a news conference at a police station because that’s where voting takes place. We went to a methamphetamine task force in Grand Junction and interrupted their news conference. And all the while, Steve’s just on the other side of the phone listening to this and thinking it’s hilarious. Wearing a toga in front of the governor’s mansion. Chasing Hickenlooper around with someone in a chicken suit and a sign that said, “What’s so scary about marijuana, Mayor Chickenlooper?”
John Hickenlooper, former Denver mayor and Colorado governor, now a U.S. senator: The 10th anniversary is really an appropriate place where I can publicly say, after all of those attacks and accusations about me in the past, Mason, I forgive you.
Tvert: One time, it was during the law enforcement press conference on Amendment 44. It was a couple of weeks before Election Day 2006. And that was when they did their big law enforcement news conference against the initiative that was led by (then-state attorney general John) Suthers with most of the sheriffs and police chiefs. And Steve was on the phone with me. We had a huge showing, like 70 people showed up there all wearing bright neon green shirts. And Steve’s like, “You should start a chant. Something like: ‘What do we want? A safer choice. When do we want it? Now.’” So everyone’s chanting, but everyone’s doing it while Suthers is speaking and, basically, you couldn’t hear anything Suthers said. And afterward, Steve was like, “Oh, you did it while they were speaking? I meant just like, you know, intermittently when no one was talking.” And I said, “Well, that got lost in translation. We definitely screamed at a guy while he was talking.”
John Suthers, former state attorney general, current mayor of Colorado Springs: I taught a law school class at DU. And I’d have Mason in as one of the guest speakers. I always try to get along with everybody I’m debating with. Mason, at least, didn’t spit on me and throw things at me. I actually had to have a police escort out of a debate at the University of Denver law school one time. That was hairy. It was a bunch of dispensary owners, and they proved to me that not everybody’s mellow in the marijuana business.
Tvert: The most successful, in terms of the amount of attention and the length of the attention was the first billboard we ever put up. The billboard was over on Federal (Boulevard, in Denver) right by Mile High Stadium. It had a woman’s face on it. She had a bruised eye, creepy dude lurking in the background. And it said, “Reduce family and community violence. Vote yes on I-100.” And the message was that adults should be given the choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol because alcohol contributes to violence, including domestic violence.
It blew up. We’re all over TV talking about it. People were complaining. So we put up a white billboard, just like blank white, and announced that we were reconsidering and we’ll make an announcement in a couple of days. But everyone showed up for that, and when they did the story, they showed the white billboard, then they showed the image of the original. And then we did an event for early voting. People thought we were going to announce it. We didn’t. But they showed it again. And then when we did actually put up a billboard, we just had text only that said — “Alcohol makes domestic violence eight times more likely. Marijuana does not.” — and had a citation to a study. And we said “We’re sorry. We realize the visual might have been jarring for some people. So we’re just sticking to the facts.” And they covered it and showed both.
And I remember Chris Vanderveen, at Channel 9, showing up and being like, “You guys are just [messing] with us.” I saw the light bulb go off in his head. He’s like, “I’ve now been here talking to you about this three times in the last four days. You intended to do this.” And that was when it really gelled in my head what we were doing.
Chris Vanderveen, 9news reporter: Mason and I had a lot of talks back then about his strategy for getting press and attention. He took a lot of cheap criticism for some of his tactics, but in the end he certainly had the proverbial last laugh.
Vicente: We just opened the door for Coloradans to ask questions about cannabis prohibition. We did earned media. It was billboards, ballot initiatives, protests, stunts. All trying to force Coloradans to think about marijuana prohibition.
Tvert: I learned very early on to redefine success because, based on the type of work we were doing, it was all about the process. We ran strategic ballot initiatives that we did not expect to produce actual changes in cannabis policy but that were intended to shift public opinion and build a movement. With Amendment 44, that quote-unquote lost, depending on how you define losing. It was unsuccessful electorally. But based on what we intended to accomplish, it was incredibly successful. For the amount of money we spent, the amount of volunteers we recruited, the amount of support that we unearthed, the number of newspaper editorials that actually came out and acknowledged certain facts and voiced support. We were doing everything in a way that whether it won or lost, it was moving the ball forward.
The legalization push culminated in 2012, when Tvert and Vicente got Amendment 64 on the ballot. The measure would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and use by adults 21 and older. It also called for licensed marijuana businesses and legalized low-THC hemp.
The campaign was audacious in its own way. Tvert and Vicente had refined their tactics and approach — for instance Tvert now regularly wore a suit, instead of a toga, to events. And it came just two years after a legalization initiative in California was soundly defeated.
Nearly every notable elected official in the state opposed the measure. But, in a groundswell of public support that crossed party lines, the amendment passed, topping even the vote total that then-President Barack Obama won in carrying the state for a second term.
Hancock: It must have been about 2007, 2008. I was still on City Council. And (Denver restaurateur and early medical marijuana dispensary owner) Wanda James said to me, “You better get on this wagon. We’re going to legalize marijuana.” And I thought Wanda had maybe smoked a little bit more than she probably should. And I said, “No way. It’s never going to happen. It will never happen in this country or this state.”
Wanda James, Denver restaurateur, dispensary owner and now candidate for University of Colorado regent: Oh my God, the battle that we have had and how far we have come. It’s so much.
Hancock: I was opposed to it. My reasons for being opposed to it stemmed from very personal stories of watching family members struggle with addiction and families devastated. Having children in my family become parentless because of drug addiction. And watching that happen, all I could imagine was that we would have a lot of children without their parents. A lot of families devastated because of the legalization of marijuana.
Hickenlooper: Just so we’re perfectly clear: I smoked pot when I was 16. It wasn’t like I was worried about it from my own personal point of view. It really was a question of a societal wave. If you’re going to be in the forefront of something like that, you need to be pretty darn sure.
Suthers: A lot of people didn’t think it would pass. That was part of the problem. Most of the people that I was talking to said, “Hey, I smoked pot when I was in high school. Look at me, I’m a stockbroker,” all that kind of stuff. And I just think they didn’t think it was a big deal. But I really do think it’s been a big deal.
Kevin Sabet, former White House drug policy adviser and current president and CEO of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana: I just had this sinking feeling in my stomach because I saw all these wonderful things that were being promised. And I thought, you know, if enough young people come out and vote, and these great things are being promised, then this thing has a chance of passing.
Vicente: I didn’t think it was going to pass. Cannabis had been functionally illegal for 90 years. So it just seemed unlikely.
Sabet: I remember Mason Tvert thinking that they were going to lose and just saying, “Can we take a picture together? This has been really fun.” And I remember some people on the no side, especially some of the hired lobbyists, being way too confident that there’s no way that Coloradans are going to legalize marijuana.
Tvert: I did not have a position on whether it would pass.
Vicente: We felt like the people were with us, even though all these elected officials were coming out against us. At a certain point in the campaign, we started getting anonymous notes telling us where the press conferences would be for the opposition campaign. They kept it under wraps because they knew we would show up in numbers. So for instance, maybe like: “Today at noon, law enforcement against this.” We’d mobilize our volunteers. And so we were able to really effectively grab some headlines there, because we’d be there. The other side of the story would be told.
It wasn’t until election night, literally, when this guy comes up to me, and he’s like, “Did you get my emails?” And I say, “Who are you?” He was the microphone guy that the opposition had hired. They contracted out the microphone guy. And he just kept sending us these emails.
Suthers: I follow the polls really carefully. And I tried to raise money against it. I think I raised $350,000. And I think the industry put in $4.5 million or $5 million.
Vicente: It really wasn’t until election night when Steve Fox was looking at the numbers coming in and said we’re going to win. I felt this degree of sort of collective joy. Because in that room there were people that had been volunteering for this for years, or like Mason and myself, working on this for years. There were people who had been in jail for cannabis crying.
Tvert: Obviously, there’s a sense of elation. But honestly, for me, what was going through my head was not, “Oh, my God, we won!” It was, “Oh, my God, everyone’s paying attention to us right now; we need to make sure we say good stuff.” This is going to be written about and talked about all over the world. This is the first time this has ever happened. We need to be saying things that will have a positive impact. Saying, “Oh, we’re so glad, I can’t wait to smoke a joint.” That would be a missed opportunity. We have a chance to talk to the entire world about why Colorado did this.
Suthers: My attitude at the time was that this, in the long-range picture, is not going to be good for Colorado. And nothing has happened to convince me otherwise.
The federal worry
Despite Colorado voters amending the state constitution to legalize marijuana in limited circumstances, possession, distribution and use of the drug remained illegal at the federal level. Tvert says he believes media attention was actually dampened on election night because there was so much uncertainty around whether the federal government would allow Colorado and Washington’s measures to go forward.
Finally, more than six months later, the U.S. Justice Department announced in the so-called Cole Memo that it would not block legalization in the two states so long as cannabis businesses abided by the rules.
To help navigate this next phase of the legalization push, Tvert and Vicente turned to Christian Sederberg, an attorney with experience in corporate law.
Vicente: Our major concern was with the federal government. Are they going to parachute into Colorado and arrest all these people for making sales? How are they going to treat this unprecedented event? And at that point, I represented a lot of medical marijuana businesses. Many of them were supportive of legalization, but many of them were concerned. Are we poking the bear? Is this going to be going too far? Are we literally going to end up in jail because of this law you guys passed?
Christian Sederberg, co-founder of the Vicente Sederberg law firm: We had a meeting with me, Steve Fox, and Brian. We went in and met with (Hickenlooper chief legal counsel) Jack Finlaw two days after the election. And we were kind of like, “We can’t be asking the federal government for permission. We should be telling them we’re going to move forward with this, but what are your concerns?” And I wouldn’t say it was heated, but definitely it was a tense meeting. And then a couple days later, Jack called me and said, “Look, we’re going to put this task force together. It’s not going to be all people that support this, and it’s gonna be this very well-rounded thing.”
Hickenlooper: If we didn’t do a process where everybody got a voice, we didn’t dot every I and cross every T, we would have been ravaged at every turn. And I think making sure that we got all the stakeholders, not just the growers and the lawyers, people who have natural self-interest. But we got religious groups involved, we got local politicians involved. We really built on a broad consensus that we were going to make this work — that voters had legalized and we were going to make this work.
Sederberg: We had a very skeptical political class. At the time, very few people supported this initially, or outwardly supported it. But if we didn’t have those folks that were very skeptical in place, the public perception, both in Colorado, but also nationally, even internationally, could have been different.
Sabet: The Justice Department could have said, “Gov. Hickenlooper, don’t do this. Don’t allow this.” And I don’t think the governor would have allowed it. I mean, he was against it at the time. He said, “We have to wait and see what the federal government is going to do.” The governor from Washington state as well. These are not like rogue governors. They would have listened to Obama’s Justice Department.
Tvert: To his credit, Hickenlooper defended what voters did in Colorado. He stood up for our state in the face of potential federal interference.
Sabet: I think in many ways the federal government has really aided and abetted, ironically, the violation of federal law by essentially turning a blind eye.
Sederberg: My thought was overturning the will of the voters, especially when we got 50,000, 55,000 more votes than Obama did in that election, for the federal government to come in and say we’re just going to overrule the state, I thought it would be very difficult to enforce.
Sabet: The public justification (by the Justice Department) was we don’t have the resources. I think the real answer was it was just something they didn’t want to deal with. It was fraught with issues politically. Are they going to really piss off younger voters? Are they going to kind of pick a fight where they don’t really want one? I mean, President Obama used to make fun of marijuana. I think personally, he actually was pretty against it. But they didn’t want to spend political capital on it. And I think they were also always worried about the hypocrisy given the president’s drug use in the past.
They thought they could come up with an answer that would please both sides. OK, you can do this, but under very strict conditions, when in reality, it was just a complete green light for the industry. And they ran with it.
An ongoing battle
Today, there are more than 600 licensed marijuana stores in Colorado, plus hundreds more licensed cultivations, product manufacturers, testing facilities, transport and delivery services and other types of companies. Cannabis sales since 2014, when the first recreational sales began, have totaled more than $13.4 billion. Tax revenue collected from those sales is approaching $2.3 billion.
But whether this constitutes a success for marijuana legalization remains in the eye of the beholder. Those who started on opposite sides of the campaign largely remain there. Some high-profile skeptics have changed their minds. Opponents say some supporters have privately expressed regrets over how big the industry has become.
New fights over high-potency THC and the impacts that legalization has had on crime, homelessness and broader drug addiction have emerged. Far from being settled law 10 years in, Amendment 64 is still the subject of active campaigns for and against it.
Jared Polis, former congressman, now governor of Colorado: Colorado’s positive experience showing that not only did people’s worst concerns never materialize but showing it could be oriented in a positive way. Reducing underage use. Driving drug dealers out of business. Making our communities safer. Empowering people to make the choices they want to make to recreate or to treat themselves for medical conditions. Colorado did what no one had done before. With voter approval of Amendment 64, we made history.
Hancock: I’m a convert today. I was wrong 10 years ago. We can do this right and do this responsibly.
Hickenlooper: I feel pretty darn sure now that this is such a better — in terms of almost every measure — such a better societal decision than what I grew up in. I’ve personally gone and talked to either the General Assembly or the governors in a half-dozen states. What about this? What about that? And literally, there is no attack, no anxiety, that we don’t have a pretty good answer for.
Vicente: The turnaround that we witnessed before our very eyes with Hancock and Hickenlooper was just so remarkable. And I honestly give them tons of credit. They’re more powerful than they were when we used to spend every day trying to figure out how to get them to implement our laws. And here they are saying, “Hey, I was wrong.”
Suthers: They’ve just given in. The majority of their constituents are saying no big deal. I’ve had some conversations with Hancock. I think he realizes that marijuana — well, to be frank, marijuana is the mother’s milk of homelessness. When I see a homeless camp, sometimes I’ll go down with the cops and walk a trail or something like that. It’s synonymous. The smell of marijuana and a homeless camp are absolutely synonymous. And I think it’s had a big, big adverse impact on Denver. But I’m not sure anybody wants to acknowledge that.
Sabet: There’s just been a lot of disingenuous arguments that have been pushed for legalization. It’s why a central person like John Hickenlooper, when he looked into this thought that this wasn’t really a good idea. Why an educator, Michael Bennet. They thought it wasn’t a good idea, but now they’re cheerleaders for it because they have to defend what their state has done. They also think there’s no turning back. And I understand politically, they have a political reality.
Suthers: I was pretty skeptical about some things. But the downsides have far exceeded my skepticism. What’s been frustrating to me is all these other states pursuing legalization of marijuana have just unabashedly talked about the great success that we’ve had in Colorado. And from my perspective, I don’t see it. I think we’re losing young people, actually.
I just consider the Colorado legislature bought and paid for. They’ve really done a good job of protecting themselves from any regulation.
Sabet: I’ve talked to countless people who voted for Amendment 64 that regret their vote. They didn’t know that they would be legalizing high-potency marijuana, that there would be a huge industry promoting potent concentrates. I mean, the list goes on. Delivery. Consumption sites. A lot of things that were not in the original Amendment 64, that voters did not realize they were voting for. And in some ways you could say the industry was given an inch, and they’ve taken a mile.
Sederberg: When it started, this was about ending prohibition, stopping the arrests, creating a regulated system. It was not seen as a huge financial opportunity. It was a simpler concept. But then as you start to apply business and capitalism and other things come in and people want different types of products and different types of things. I think we’ve done a good job of striking the right balance in public health and safety and education and other things.
I’m from Denver, I grew up here, so I care a lot about the public health of this state, and also want this state to be a great place to live and have good opportunities. And this industry, I think, has the potential to be a really important part of our economy.
Suthers: These are smart people. They’re making a lot of money and they want to stay on the gravy train. And I don’t think they care much about what kind of harm they’re doing.
A lot of people dismiss me as a drug war dinosaur, and I suspect that’s fair in some respects. As a prosecutor, I’ve been fighting drug abuse all my life. And I just think our statewide drug policy is schizophrenic. Anything government taxes it ultimately promotes. And we’ve really convinced our kids there’s not much of a downside risk to it.
Advocates for marijuana legalization now find themselves in a bewildering spot: They are the dog that caught the car. Many have moved into more sedate roles. Vicente and Sederberg run one of the most prominent marijuana-focused law practices in the country, representing cannabis businesses and also opening an emerging practice focusing on psychedelics. Their offices are located in the former headquarters of the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.
But the battle also continues. Activists have expressed frustration at the lack of meaningful progress at the federal level. In Colorado, the legislature could next year again take up a debate over whether to cap the potency of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis. And the industry is also enduring the first sustained slump in its history.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. But, as Colorado’s history with marijuana shows, it would be unwise to rule anything out.
James: One thing I am surprised at: For me it’s been 13 years since we opened our [medical cannabis] dispensary in 2009, and we have not legalized yet (at the federal level). The fact that so many states have allowed for the recreational sale or medicinal sale of cannabis. The amount of money and the fact that 70%, 69%, whatever it is, of Americans now believe that cannabis should be legal. There is not another subject in America on which 70% of Americans agree.
Hickenlooper: We are at a point now where I think it is time for the federal government to step up to the big boy table. We’re going to work very hard to get safe banking done in the lame duck. I think it’s got a decent shot.
Sederberg: We’re getting into this endgame where there’s a lot of big questions on things like potency and things related to mental health and public health that I think are very, very, very important issues. And it’s not going to change the overall tide but it certainly will impact how this all looks in five to 10 years.
Suthers: Marijuana is going to go the same road as tobacco. I see evidence that the plaintiffs bar, which is always hovering around looking for some great new source of revenue, I think that they are monitoring very carefully what’s happening, the kinds of injuries that are happening with high-potency THC.
Sabet: You’re beginning to see a wave of concern that is very much mainstream. And I think you’re going to see more of it. But does that mean we’re going to have an initiative on the ballot in a year? I don’t think so. It’s going to take a long time for that to happen. I do think if you could wave a magic wand and word something very fairly and give them the facts, I think the majority of Coloradans would greatly change the way marijuana is handled in the state right now. I really do. Would they repeal shops? I don’t know, maybe in some places they would. Would they regulate so we wouldn’t have anything above 20% THC? I absolutely think they would.
Vicente: We’re still years out from accomplishing our goal of legalized cannabis in every corner of the United States. There’s still a ton of work to be done. So we remain very mission-oriented as a law firm. And, it feels good to know that we’ve played a role in kind of changing the arc of history on this important issue.