Going way beyond cannabis, Colorado is blazing all kinds of political trails

Going way beyond cannabis, Colorado is blazing all kinds of political trails

PoliticsSeptember 09, 2016 By Reilly Capps

When it comes to law and public policy, big, important ideas are coming out of Colorado right now. We're not just talking about weed legalization here — in every area from drugs to to health care, Colorado is distinguishing itself from the pack, making the kinds of progressive policy moves that make the rest of the country seem arcane and backwards. 

Have you seen what’s on the ballot this November?

— Assisted suicide.
— A $12 minimum wage.
— Universal health care.
— Social pot smoking in Denver.

Whether or not you support these measures individually, you have to admit that it’s ballsy to try these — especially all at once. Only five states have assisted suicide. Only four are voting to boost their minimum wage. None have social pot smoking or universal health care. Put it this way: Idaho ain’t trying nothing like this.

So, what's pushing Colorado to make such bold, sweeping moves? What makes us such a singular state in terms of how we want our lives governed?

According to Holly Armstrong, spokesperson of the popular assisted suicide measure, it’s in the very character of Coloradans to want to try new and radical things.

“Other states might look at it and say, ‘That hasn’t been done and that’s why we shouldn’t do it,’” says Armstrong. “But in Colorado, that almost works the opposite. People hear that it hasn’t been done and they almost want to do it more.

By far the biggest vote in November will be on health care, as Colorado votes whether to reject President Obama’s biggest legislative program, Obamacare, and replace it with our own version: ColoradoCare.

ColoradoCare would work like the health care systems in Canada or Britain; taxes would go up but everybody would get the same healthcare. It’s called Amendment 69, and while that's a cute coincidence, it really could mean the end of insurance companies screwing people over and the beginning of everybody mutually pleasuring each other to a medicinal climax. It seems headed for defeat (it's only got 27 percent support right now), but it’s the ambition that’s worth noticing. Even if it falls flat on its face, we'll still have been the only state that considered universal heath care this ballot cycle.

So, what’s pushing us to make these bold moves? Jenny Davies, a consultant who’s been working in Colorado politics for 25 years, pointed to the fact that Colorado has long been powered by waves of migrants looking to try something new.

“Our willingness to be different,” Davies says, “comes from our being independent, valuing fundamental fairness and going our own way. It’s in our collective DNA.”

You might think that, after legalizing cannabis, Coloradans would sit back and watch other states try new things for once. Not so.

"Legalizing pot — and having legalization succeed as much as it has — has only further boosted our confidence to take action on other big measures," says CU Boulder anthropology professor Caroline Conzelman, who studies cannabis culture (really). “One victory builds confidence in the potential of our democratic system — which mostly seems broken today — to allow citizens to change laws.

This confidence was hard-fought. Oklahoma and Nebraska tried to block our chronic. The feds have denied bank accounts to dispensaries. Conzelman says that “the fact that Colorado (and Washington) has had to defend itself from the federal government and its neighbors over its MJ legalization makes people feel like, "Fuck the rest of the country — we have to stand proud, defend our democratic rights of self-determination, and go it alone in this fight. And since we succeeded in passing pot legalization with shining results for our economy and culture, let's forge ahead on other controversial issues!"

And, one more thing about pot: Conzelman thinks pot might literally be part of what’s driving us, given “the creativity, enthusiasm and community that come from consuming locally grown herb.”

"Colorado is also a very good place to hash out differences," says Lizeth Chacon, who heads the push to raise the minimum wage from $8.31 today to $12 by 2020, a measure polls suggest is headed for victory. She notes that Colorado is small enough to have these types of genuine conversations, and “it’s divided in a really even way.” That may seem oxymoronic. But in Colorado, there are almost exactly as many active Democrats as Republicans; 953,000 to 964,000 respectively. And both are outnumbered by unaffiliated or independent voters. That means we get to hear both sides of the story and pass more encompassing legislation as a result.

I'm just spit-balling here, but if I had to venture a guess as to why Colorado is being so ballsy, I’d put forward my theory that an under-appreciated factor of our life here is our physical distance from the coastal power centers of Washington, New York and Los Angeles. When I lived in those places, it was hard to talk to people about ideas that were different. They tended to brush them off. This isn’t just my sense. In the history of ideas, many big changes came not from the centers of empires, but from the neglected outposts; modern science germinated not in Athens but in Ionia, and the Internet bloomed not in Washington, D.C., but in San Jose.

You can probably feel this around you. I definitely can: the rebellious and ambitious attitude that was kick-started by weed is bleeding into all corners of life. Regardless of whether this drive is a permanent thing or a passing fad, there’s a massive amount of state pride about all this right now. From Cortez to Loveland, the art is better and more avant-garde, the food tastier and more adventurous and the music more face-melting and exploratory than I’ve ever seen it. Tourism is setting records. The economy is kickass. People are unashamedly draped in Colorado-themed apparel and bumper stickers and getting inked with Colorado tattoos.

And new migrants continue to pour in. These people are looking to keep shit rolling, especially because many are coming not just for the weed or the scenery, but, in the words of anthropology professor Conzelman, for the “sense of possibility that they feel in Colorado, that a real positive change can happen here, the sense that they are living through an historical moment of grassroots democracy and culture change and they are inspired to take part.”