The Economy, Marijuana and the Youth Vote: All Tied Up in Colorado

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ANALYSIS | Colorado: It's a quintessentially purple state with a libertarian streak as wide as the Rockies. Split down the middle by the Continental Divide, so too are its voters nearly evenly divided between President Barack Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney. According to a recent Purple Strategies poll, the president is currently clinging to a 1-point lead over his GOP rival in the Centennial State, and who voters support depends largely on where they live.

"Where you stand depends on where you sit in Colorado," Colorado State University economist Martin Shields told the Associated Press in Ft. Collins. "If you give a talk in Boulder, everyone thinks [Obama's] great. If you give a talk in Colorado Springs, everyone thinks he's awful."

But everywhere in Colorado, one issue will loom largest come November 6: the economy. And like its politics, the state's economy-- and the outlook of its workers-- varies markedly by geographic location. The northeastern part of the state is enjoying a major oil boom, with two companies announcing that they will invest a whopping $15 billion in drilling operations in Weld County alone.

Colorado farmers are also enjoying record crop prices, especially for corn, although the drought that is devastating much of the nation and a plague of grasshoppers are threatening their livelihood.

Down in Pueblo, it's quite another story. Unemployment here is a staggering 12.2 percent, well above the national rate of 8.2 percent. But even here, there are signs of hope. Vestas, a Danish wind-energy giant, has opened the world's largest wind turbine tower plant in Pueblo. Some 470 jobs have been created. It's a drop in the bucket, but overall, state officials say that Colorado has recovered nearly half of the 151,600 jobs lost in the recession.

Pointing to the state's shaky economy, supporters of Amendment 64, a statewide ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and regulate and tax it like alcohol argue that passing the measure could generate as much as $80 million in annual tax revenue. According to a June Rasmussen poll, fully 61 percent of Colorado voters favor legalization.

This is no surprise in places like Boulder and Denver, where there are more medical marijuana dispensaries than there are Starbucks, but support for legalization isn't just limited to the Mile "High" City. Down in Colorado Springs, one of the nation's most conservative cities, there are nearly as many medical marijuana dispensaries as there are churches. For many conservatives here, and throughout the state, the issue of government intrusion trumps concerns about marijuana use. Many Coloradans bristle at what they see as federal government overreach in this, the birthplace of the Libertarian Party.

With a combination of laid-back liberals and anti-government conservatives and libertarians, there's a chance that Amendment 64 might just pass. But more importantly, the measure could bring young voters out to the polls in droves. That could bode well for President Obama, although many young people here are dismayed and disappointed by the Justice Department's crackdown on medical marijuana, something Obama had promised to take a hands-off approach to earlier in his presidency. The president's hypocrisy on the issue -- he has admitted to being a pretty serious stoner in his youth -- also rankles young voters.

Still, the president fares much better on this issue than does his opponent. Not only has Mitt Romney promised to continue the War on Drugs, he also flippantly dismissed Colorado's heated marijuana legalization debate as "unimportant" during a recent visit to the state. That rubbed many Coloradans raw and did little to improve perceptions of Romney as "out of touch." Indeed, the economy, marijuana and the youth vote are inextricably tied up and could tie break in Colorado come November 6.

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