Pot initiative could be boon to Obama in Colorado

  • Javier Martinez uses a sign to advertise for LoHi Cannabis Club dispensary as an estimated 10,000 people were expected to gather for a 4/20 marijuana rally in Civic Center Park April 20 in Denver, Colorado. Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
    This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

    DENVER -- In a sparsely developed industrial lot on the outskirts of town stands a nondescript single-story edifice.

    A small sign in front of the building announces it, unremarkably, as the "Denver Dispensary," but the strong herbal odor emanating from the premises gives away the facility's function in this city's flourishing medical marijuana distribution system.

    There are at least 400 such dispensaries in the Denver area alone, helping to make Colorado's capital region one of the most pot-friendly areas of the country in a state that has allowed medicinal use of the drug since Amendment 20 passed in 2000.

    Marijuana will again appear on the Colorado ballot this November, as voters here will decide whether the state should allow possession of up to an ounce of pot for recreational use among residents 21 and over.

    Sandra Jarzeboski, a manager at the Denver Dispensary, said the majority of the approximately 100 patients she sees each day have indicated that they intend to vote for the pro-legalization initiative on Nov. 6 -- and will also pull the lever for President Obama while they're at it.

    "It's definitely 75 percent for Obama, for sure," Jarzeboski, a Ron Paul supporter herself, said of her customers. "I think it'll definitely help him here."

    Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney supports marijuana legalization efforts like Colorado's Amendment 64, and neither candidate appears to have a political interest in addressing the issue directly.

    "Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about?" Romney asked a Denver TV reporter who queried him about the topic in a recent interview.

    But in a tight race to win this state's nine electoral votes, most Colorado political watchers believe that the pot issue could well become a significant factor on the presidential level, regardless of whether the initiative passes.

    Obama won the state by 9 percentage points in 2008 with an assist from enthusiastic younger voters, who reveled in the excitement punctuated by that summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.

    Four years later he holds just a three-point lead in the RCP Average, and evidence suggests that at least some of Obama's glow has worn off among the young professional and student set here, though enthusiasm for pot apparently has not diminished in the 20-something haven of Denver and in two of the state's major university towns.

    In the Princeton Review's latest rankings, Colorado College (in Colorado Springs) earned the title of the most marijuana-friendly campus in the nation, and the University of Colorado-Boulder was not far behind, coming in fourth place nationwide.

    When President Obama visited the latter campus on April 24, Boulder police were just four days removed from their efforts to crack down on the annual marijuana-themed 4/20 event, which in previous years has drawn a pro-marijuana crowd of about 10,000 people. (The number 420 has long been associated with marijuana use, though the origins of that connection are difficult to ascertain.)

    Colorado Democratic pollster Andrew Myers predicted that this year's ballot initiative would result in a larger than typical youth vote in the presidential race.

    "It's a personal thing for these folks, which is good news for the Obama campaign because it means you'll have higher turnout in Boulder and Fort Collins [home to Colorado State University] -- the places we need it," Myers said. "If you are young, odds are pretty strong that you're pro. If you're older, odds are pretty strong that you're anti. So it's a way to reach youth at a time when they're not very excited."

    Helming the effort to oppose Amendment 64 is Ken Buck, the 2010 Colorado Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and current Weld County district attorney.

    In a demonstration of bipartisanship on the issue, a pair of state Democrats --communications consultant Laura Chapin and Adams and Broomfield County District Attorney Don Quick -- have teamed up with Buck in the anti-legalization group that calls itself Smart Colorado.

    Chapin disputes Myers' assessment that the marijuana initiative will be a significant factor at the presidential level here, arguing that contraception and abortion issues have in the past been more important motivators for progressive voters in Colorado.

    "I'm not sure that, despite what they say, this would get you any voters that you wouldn't get already," Myers said. "Elections here are decided among suburban women and Latinos, and neither of those groups support this [ballot measure]."

    Myers noted that in 2006, Colorado voters rejected by a 20-point margin a nearly identical initiative that would have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and voters in California voted down a similar measure two years ago.

    While both sides say that they expect the vote to be much closer than it was six years ago, anti-legalization Democrats are eager to de-link the issue from the presidential race.

    "As adults, we're going to disagree with young people on numerous issues," Quick said. "I have this discussion with young folks all the time, and I get a split decision with young folks as to legalizing. A lot of young people have seen the impact [marijuana use] has had on their friends, so I don't think it necessarily means that young folks that support [Smart Colorado] are going to vote across the board against the president."

    A group that was established to support Amendment 64, The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, is much better funded than the anti-legalization group and has already purchased $800,000 in TV time, according to a spokesman.

    The pro-legalization group was buoyed by a Rasmussen poll released earlier this month, which found that 61 percent of likely Colorado voters favored legalizing marijuana, if it were to be regulated in the way that the ballot initiative proposes.

    Amendment 64 received the official backing of the state's Democratic Party at its convention in April, and the pro-legalization group is not shy about framing the issue in generally partisan terms, despite Obama's opposition.

    "It just goes to show that regardless of where Democratic leaders stand on this issue, Democrats in general are very supportive," said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization effort. "There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this could very well have an impact here."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.