Colorado’s Pro-Pot Vote Shows the Fading of Evangelical Fervor

The religious conservatives who brought you Reefer Madness rolled over for Amendment 64.

A man smokes a joint in Denver

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images.

New Year’s revelers in Colorado had a novel way to ring in 2013: stoned in America’s first marijuana clubs. One in Denver served Cheetos and Goldfish as official snacks, the latest poke at Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed the ballot initiative decriminalizing cannabis. The Colorado election and other signs point to an America warming to the idea of legal pot. Now opponents of legalization are poring bewilderedly over the Amendment 64 fight for their own signs: of what they did wrong.

After the amendment won an unexpected and decisive 55-45 victory, postmortems tried to explain why. Some people pointed to money: The anti-pot campaign was outfunded 6-to-1. The antidrug lobby couldn’t afford a sophisticated campaign and was forced to make desperate-looking YouTube ads. Others argue the effort by prominent opponents was lackluster. Gov. Hickenlooper released a two-paragraph statement but little more. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wouldn’t even do that, a move the anti-pot side complained amounted to “tacit acceptance.”

But there’s a glaring omission here, one that hints at a larger societal shift. The religious right is possibly the country’s most reliable anti-pot voice. Out of it has flowed a century of anti-pot propaganda (even Reefer Madness began as a church project), draconian anti-pot policy prescriptions (Pat Robertson advocated that dealers get “life sentences in prison with no chance for parole”), and PACs built to snuff out pro-pot legislation (Focus on the Family’s Colorado Family Action). Somehow, for Amendment 64, the pot legalization battle of this generation, a battle so big it had “no historical context,” these all-star weed busters didn’t show.

What makes the election results all the more shocking is that Colorado is the home turf of the evangelical movement. Colorado Springs, the “evangelical Vatican,” is a stronghold of more than 120 parachurch groups, presided over by Focus on the Family. In 2006, voters in Colorado Springs’ El Paso County, which goes 2-to-1 Republican, eviscerated Amendment 64’s predecessor (Amendment 44) in a 28-point rout for God’s law. It was one of Amendment 44’s severest losses in the state. Six years later, Amendment 64 lost here by a mere 1.2 points.

It’s true that 64 was simply a better amendment than 44, but the evangelical position on pot is shifting. It’s a shift on a national scale, and although it’s nuanced, slow, and in medias res, nowhere demonstrates this reorientation better than Colorado. The point isn’t that evangelicals are newly potheads; far from it. Many who voted for 64 will still abstain. But a number of post-election surveys show a shift among all demographic groups. And the best evidence is probably in Colorado Springs, the omphalos of the evangelical movement. Today, what’s been called the country’s most religious city finds itself second only to Denver in dispensaries, with more than 200, most of them established since the 2009 “green rush.” (Best Budz shares a shopping center with the city’s second largest megachurch.)

Not everyone sees the paradox. Some, including local evangelicals I’ve talked to, contend it’s fiction to call Colorado Springs the religious right’s Mecca or Vatican. They say the city’s conservatism is Eisenhowerian, having less to do with its religious organizations than with its military presence (which includes the Air Force Academy, NORAD, and several bases). Others say weed in Colorado Springs shows the religious right’s irrelevance, not shifting thinking.

But while it’s true the omphalos has at times overvalued its influence, it is a billion-dollar center of religious power with sway, like it or not, locally, nationally, and symbolically. The city has a history of ugly showdowns over gay pride parades. It’s home to New Life Church, once and still a formidable liberal foe, as well as groups like Young Life, whose youth ministry opposes drugs, and the 100-year-old Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, whose two Colorado centers provide drug rehab and recovery programs. Most school districts and educator groups in the state opposed 64, but the Association of Christian Schools International opted to stay mum. It’s difficult to imagine 200 dispensaries materializing in Colorado Springs unless evangelicals at least de-escalated their opposition.

On Dec. 10, when Gov. Hickenlooper signed  the amendment, Colorado’s potential marijuana consumer base increased 35-fold, from 107,666 (the patients in the state’s existing medical marijuana registry) to 3.7 million (those age 21 and older, plus the underage members of the registry). The religious right’s top brass built the drug war around marijuana, and now that it is legal, their response is: Que será, será.

This was true even behind closed doors. Tom Minnery, head of Focus on the Family’s political arm, CitizenLink, met with the Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board before the election. People familiar with the conversation say the board asked Minnery how Focus planned to marshal resources against Amendment 64, which by then was supported by fearsome forces. Minnery said there wasn’t really a plan, and he explained that Focus leadership was still red-faced from the organization’s anti-pot hyperbolizing in 2000, the year Coloradans passed the Medical Use of Marijuana Act. Focus on the Family’s president at that time was James Dobson, a smart man with a Ph.D. who taught for 16 years at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. He fixated on bunk anti-pot statistics from a 1980 booklet by a Menninger Foundation doctor. From the Washington Times to his radio show, Dobson repeated the claims: “Five marijuana cigarettes have the same cancer-causing capacity as 112 conventional cigarettes.” “Marijuana stays in the body, lodged in the fat cells, for three to five weeks. Mental and physical performance is negatively affected during this entire period of time.” Talking to the Gazette, Minnery wanted to underscore that Focus had no intention of taking that path again.

Current Focus president Jim Daly made a similar point when he debriefed the Los Angeles Times after the election. Concerning 2012’s losses on gay marriage and pot, he warned that evangelicals need to adopt a strategy of tackling social issues “with winsomeness,” or else they’ll continue losing. Minnery’s pre-election candidness confirms that the idea to change their tone didn’t suddenly occur to Focus on the morning of Nov. 7. In fact (and though it continued to hammer supporters of the various gay-marriage initiatives), Focus on the Family rebuffed requests for comment on pot throughout the 2012 campaign. It was a pause for self-reflection much more than a white-flag-waving retreat. The election’s big sociocultural question—“How do we accommodate a drug we no longer fear”—is one the religious right is grappling with, too. Focus’ CitizenLink arm did sneak in a $25,000 donation to the no-on-64 effort, called Smart Colorado, but that’s a pittance next to the $1 million Focus invested in the Colorado Family Action PAC in 2006 to defeat Amendment 44 and to support a measure banning same-sex marriage. Asked shortly after the election to clarify Focus’ stance, or its silence, or CitizenLink’s donation—anything at all—a spokesperson demurred, then, after some prodding, said Focus on the Family has opposed all of the state’s pot initiatives. (The PAC did release a 2012 voter guide urging no on 64.)

Moralism is historically the winningest anti-pot argument. The religious right was MIA, but a smattering of mainline pastors, black clergy, and other Christian leaders did speak out in opposition, stepping into the big, empty, clown-size shoes they’d never fill. The media saw pastors talking pot and labeled it, in the Huffington Post’s words, “a marijuana holy war.” It amounted more to a sideshow.

The highlight came Oct. 23, when a handful of clergy, mostly inner-city pastors, held a press conference at Agape Christian Church in Denver to proclaim that legal pot “is heading to a path of total destruction.” Mason Tvert, the Yes on 64 co-director, says his side, which had compiled its own pro-pot clergy list, got word of the Denver shindig the day before. “We had planned to release our list on Thursday,” he told me, “but when we heard they were meeting on Tuesday, we just put ours out right before they met.” A holier-than-thou standoff ensued that the Denver Post slapped with the headline “Holy Schism Emerges.”

It emerged, yes—and then receded after one anticlimactic day. Warm religious bodies on both sides numbered fewer than three dozen. Supporters of legalization won the standoff with a slightly greater turnout, but not with any surprises. Its supporters had pro-pot histories or belonged to denominations that did, in many cases motivated by objections to high incarceration rates for drug offenses. But both sides’ announcements seemed extraneous. Major endorsements had already been made, and Smart Colorado, run by a well-connected consulting firm, paid the anti-pot clergy little mind before or after.

The twist was that, perhaps for the first time, opponents of marijuana decriminalization didn’t seriously attempt to take the moral high ground. Why, Tvert argues, is because “people are tired of the moralist argument. It’s not compelling anymore.” If this sounds a little like a victor’s draft of history, it is, but it’s also more or less true: While Yes on 64 sounded confident it could win with appeals to legal highs and a tidy sum in tax revenues, the anti-64 side resorted to a buckshot approach—there’d be federal lawsuits, more crime, higher unemployment, highway pileups, chonged-out teens, fields of marijuana! It left morality alone, suggesting organizers thought it’d be toxic. (Smart Colorado declined to comment.) Tvert even says he wielded CitizenLink’s $25,000 gift as a cudgel, knowing it sat uneasily with Roger Sherman, Smart Colorado’s director. Sherman was simultaneously directing Fight Back Colorado, an effort to defeat Colorado pols running against gay rights—a position entirely anathema to groups like Focus on the Family, underscoring the anti-pot campaign’s apathy toward courting evangelicals. Tvert adds: “I almost think they were scared to have that kind of support,” meaning the evangelical community’s.

Loud anti-pot evangelical lone rangers such as Denver pastor/conspiratorialist Bob Enyart were tapped by the media as anti-pot evangelicalism’s face, partly for lack of other options. The Yes on 64 camp, meanwhile, scored big evangelical boosters with Tom Tancredo, the former GOP presidential candidate, and Ron Paul, a presidential candidate himself for much of the 64 fight, both solid if unorthodox born-agains with strong name recognition.

In March, the Yes effort got more manna from heaven when Pat Robertson told the New York Times he “absolutely” supported 64–quite an evolution since he argued, in 1988, for life sentences for dealers. This wasn’t a complete 180; in 2010, he remarked on The 700 Club that criminalizing “the possession of a few ounces of pot” was “costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people.” But now he added that laws “should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” coincidentally echoing Yes on 64, whose official name was the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. (Robertson begged off campaigning for 64, though. “I’m not a crusader,” he said, undoubtedly inviting eye-rolls all around.)

Ultimately, more problematic for Smart Colorado than big-name evangelical defections or ho-hum official opposition to legalization was the eerie quiet from everyone else in that crucial evangelical bloc. “I know the impact [of marijuana],” John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, told me. “I know it’s a gateway drug. We just chose not to become involved in the politics of it.” He never said that publicly during the fight, but his association’s decision not to take a position on 64 spoke pretty clearly. Almost all of Ashmen’s board is Republican, and they were fully aware that the amendment potentially puts a Schedule 1 drug in 3.7 million new Coloradan hands. “You have to choose wisely what you’re going to get involved in,” he explains. Which they did: They decided to just say no.