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11th-hour bill tries to ban pot sales

By Joe Hanel Herald staff writer

DENVER – In a last-minute and ill-fated move, state senators tried to partially repeal legalized marijuana sales Monday night.

The maneuver caused pandemonium on the third-to-last night of the legislative session, with suit-and-tie-wearing marijuana lobbyists swarming through the hallways and panicked at the idea that retail pot sales could be repealed.

But the idea was short-lived, and senators backed off it almost as soon as they introduced it.

For a few hours, though, the drama cast doubt on months of work legislators have done to craft marijuana regulations.

Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, was the lone no vote at the repeal bill’s hastily called hearing.

“Can anyone tell me why we just spent mega hours on Amendment 64?” Jahn said.

Several senators are worried that voters will reject a pair of taxes the Legislature plans to put on the November ballot, leaving the state with no money to pay for marijuana regulation.

So with just 5½ hours left to introduce legislation in the 2013 session, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, announced Senate Concurrent Resolution 3.

It would have asked voters two questions. First, it wanted them to approve a 15 percent excise tax and a 15 percent sales tax on marijuana, which voters legalized through Amendment 64 last November. If voters rejected the taxes, a second question would have asked them to suspend retail pot sales.

In its brief life, SCR 3 made a run at the legislative record book. It was introduced and passed its first committee hearing within an hour – before the text was even released to the public. And it died just three hours after it its birth.

With just three days left in the session, the resolution would have had to pass its first of two votes in the Senate by Monday night. It also needed a two-thirds majority, and it was introduced with 24 co-sponsors – exactly enough to clear the Senate. But sometime between its introduction at 6:30 p.m. and an 8:30 p.m. meeting of Democrats, someone dropped out, killing the bill’s chances.

The marijuana lobby might not support the taxes the state will need to regulate the industry, Morse said.

“In Amendment 64, they promised $40 million of school funding and didn’t deliver a dime,” Morse said. “That’s why we came up with this plan, so they’d have skin back in the game.”

But a Democratic dissenter, Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, said the Legislature should focus on implementing Amendment 64 instead of rolling it back.

“It’s our job to respect what the voters did,” Steadman said.

Amendment 64’s supporters quickly assembled for the committee hearing and called Morse’s move a slap in the face to voters.

“This is holding a gun to the voters’ head. It is clearly, clearly not what’s contemplated by how we operate our resolution system and our system of changing our constitution,” said Christian Sederberg, a lawyer specializing in marijuana law.

But Morse’s fellow sponsor said Amendment 64 was deceptive, because it promised voters things it couldn’t deliver.

“The ballot title on 64 already slapped the voters in the face,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

Amendment 64’s tax language was flawed. It told the Legislature to adopt a 15 percent excise tax, but in Colorado, only the voters can approve tax increases.

A dual-question ballot referendum such as SCR 3 has never been tried before. Deputy Attorney General David Blake said the idea is legally defensible. He also sits on the board that sets titles for ballot initiatives, and he said the measure could set a precedent for other ballot initiatives.

“This is a novel concept or an interesting concept that might make future Title Board hearings difficult or challenging,” Blake said.

The move by the Senate took House members by surprise. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who headed the Legislature’s special marijuana committee, said he knew nothing about the resolution until it was introduced.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was one of the 11 senators who declined to sign on as a co-sponsor to SCR 3.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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