Individual Submission Summary

Direct link:


The Local Politics of Pot: Contextualizing and Reframing the Analysis

Fri, September 1, 10:00 to 11:30am, Parc 55, Balboa


Since Arizona and California’s 1996 passage of statewide legislation authorizing medical marijuana, there has been a steady increase in the number of states passing similar legislation. This parallels growing public approval of the use of medical marijuana along with the declining salience of marijuana usage as a moral issue. With Washington and Colorado voters’ 2012 approval of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, this policy adoption process broadened and accelerated. The federal government continues to categorize marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug substance, effectively criminalizing the supply and distribution of marijuana and hampering its financial operations. But the fiscal and economic benefits gained by early marijuana policy innovators is driving more and more state legislators to consider adoption of policies legalizing medical and, increasingly recreational, marijuana usage.
A robust scholarship on “marijuana federalism” traces the complexities of these intergovernmental dynamics, particularly the legal and constitutional dimensions. But less attention is given to the local politics of pot: there is some discussion of “pot localism” with a focus on a Tiebout-like matching of citizen preferences and local regulations but little scholarly analysis of the local political context. This analysis of the politics of recreational pot in Denver CO since the late 1990s considers the actors, resources, and incentives promoting recreational marijuana legalization at the state level despite considerable resistance at the local level. State wide voters rejected legalization bids multiple times before approving an initiative-- Amendment 64-- in 2012 that enabled localities to regulate, license, tax, and control provision of recreational marijuana. Colorado’s Governor (and former Denver Mayor), Denver’s Mayor, and powerful members of the City Council argued against Amendment 64 in the face of substantial pressure and funding from activist groups. The implementation of Amendment 64 threatened to undermine Denver’s downtown renaissance even while bringing budget windfalls to the city and generating a variety of marijuana-related businesses. This uneasy seduction continues, as pot activists run for City Council and local officials struggle with being labeled the “New Amsterdam.”
As more cities consider the marijuana economy, the local politics of pot will become increasingly salient but they are not adequately explained by existing theoretical approaches. There is no easy answer to “who governs” local pot policy. There is no local “pot regime” in Denver; in fact there was substantial local resistance and the forces pushing for adoption were primarily non-local. “Place-making” decisions center on avoiding the negative images of the “New Amsterdam” while not squelching the local economic opportunities. The tax revenues broadly benefit local budgets but local pot businesses are relatively small scale, highly regulated, and policed. So the coalitions forming around the policy benefits and costs, as JQ Wilson would have it, are unclear and fluid at best. The libertarian strains in Colorado’s history and culture provided a welcome setting for legalization, especially in the face of federal prohibitions, but there is no powerful set of local interest groups advocating for recreational marijuana. Nor is there a local bureaucracy at the center of this domain. The weak institutional structure allowing easy access to the statewide initiative process explains how legalization happened but not why nor how local officials are responding. Given the local authority to allow or prohibit recreational marijuana (in contrast to Washington’s statewide approval for local dispensaries), local governments are more likely to compete than to collaborate on marijuana policies.
In a way, the local politics of pot could be considered a new chapter of the “local culture wars” Elaine Sharp depicted so vividly in the late 1990s but marijuana is rapidly evolving from a moral issue to an economic one. A governance approach is more able to capture the directionality and flow of decisions shaping this new arena. This analysis of the local politics of recreational pot in Denver centers on the relationships among actors and decisions shaping local recreational marijuana issues since adoption of Amendment 64 in 2012. It tests the alternative explanations noted above, as well as considering regulatory politics frameworks in analyzing local implementation of a voter-approved recreational marijuana policy political elites did not support. This paper is part of a book-length study of Denver politics since the 1980s, this analysis places the local politics of pot in Denver in the context of other Denver policy successes such as downtown revitalization, funding cultural facilities, and promoting a regional transportation system.