LITTLETON, Colo. — Marijuana isn't the kind of thing one expects to be asked about on a trip to a county administrative building. But folks outside an Arapahoe County building on a recent afternoon were surprisingly receptive to two men gathering signatures to petition a pot question onto ballots next year.
The petition, circulating for months, asks whether Colorado should be the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Activists backing the measure say they've far cleared the 86,000 signature threshold to make ballots, and could have petitions to state officials for approval by the end of the year.
After that, they start the harder work — persuading Coloradans to embrace a direct challenge to federal drug law.
Outside the Arapahoe County building, many voters were intrigued by the ballot proposal. Some who signed on said they've never used marijuana but are annoyed by what they consider Colorado's two-step with the feds over whether marijuana is allowed but just for sick people, and how it should be sold and taxed.
"If we're going to have marijuana, I think it should be controlled," said 80-year-old Barney Richardson of Denver. Richardson has seen medical marijuana dispensaries proliferate, and doubts the validity of some medical ailments on the part of patients. "I don't like the way the government's controlling things now, so let the people decide a different way."
Richardson said he's never smoked pot. But he added, "I used to smoke cigarettes, and think those ought to be banned."
Another man who signed the petition, 43-year-old Rick Rome of Centennial, said he doesn't use marijuana either but finds pot laws a waste of taxpayer money.
"We're looking at tremendous expenditures for drug crimes," Rome said. "I think it's a civil rights issue."
The organizer of the ballot petition, Emmett Reistroffer of the Marijuana Policy Project, has worked in marijuana advocacy in several states and says Colorado's libertarian streak and longtime experience with medical marijuana makes it a logical place to challenge federal prohibition of the drug.
"Right now in Colorado, marijuana's like this dirty little secret," Reistroffer said. "It's sort of underground, sort of medical, but still illegal under federal law. If we're going to change this, we need to fight on the state level."
If it's cleared for ballots, the marijuana question would ask voters whether the drug should be allowed in small amounts for adults over 21. The measure would also instruct state lawmakers to ask voters for an excise tax on the drug. It would say that marijuana can't be used "openly and publicly" and that pot must be grown in locked, enclosed places. Medical marijuana, in which patients suffering certain ailments can seek doctor recommendations for the drug, would still exist.
Mason Tvert, head of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said his group plans to shift into campaign mode once the measure is cleared for the ballot. He said the campaign already has more than 150,000 signatures, which would likely guarantee a place on the ballot even after invalid signatures are tossed.
Despite the likelihood the marijuana question makes ballots, Tvert and other activists concede their odds are long for getting voters to legalize pot.
Reistroffer, the petition organizer, said he thinks the odds of success at the polls are about 30 percent. He talked about federal saber-rattling over medical marijuana, with the Drug Enforcement Administration cracking down on dispensaries in California and Montana.
"I don't think the thought process has gone that far, where people are willing to say, 'Let's challenge this,'" Reistroffer said.
The proposal has already raised opposition from law enforcement authorities in Colorado, including the state's top lawyer, Republican Attorney General John Suthers. A marijuana legalization question on ballots in 2006 failed badly.
And so far, the pot campaign isn't rolling in money. According to state filings, the issue committee working on the campaign, called the Coalition To End Marijuana Prohibition, had only about $20,000 on hand in mid-October. Much of the money came from out-of-state donations, especially from the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project Foundation.
Tvert said the campaign will start slow, trying to persuade voters that marijuana doesn't pose the public threat some fear it does.
"We will be focused on educating Colorado on the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol," Tvert said, echoing the campaign's argument that pot should be limited and taxed, but still legal for adults.
Tvert worked on the unsuccessful 2006 campaign and said the state's attitude toward pot is much different now. He expects donations to pick up for a fall media campaign in support of the ballot measure.
"Colorado has made the most progress in establishing sensible marijuana policies and we have no doubt Colorado will be the first state in the country to end marijuana prohibition," Tvert said.