Election Day approval by two states’ voters of ballot questions to liberalize marijuana laws is deepening an already thorny Justice Department dilemma: If states say pot use is ok, how long can federal laws and policies just say “No”?
With the clearance of ballot questions in Washington state and Colorado to allow recreational pot use, the stage is set for the nation’s first state regulation and taxation of pot use—unless the Justice Department blocks them.
So far, federal authorities have been silent, looking the other way at medical marijuana use in 17 states while standing by existing federal laws against recreational marijuana.
And when Colorado officials asked Attorney General Eric Holder Nov. 9 for the federal government's response to the marijuana votes, they didn’t get one; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said according to the Huffington Post.
“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or Gold Fish too quickly.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Washington’s largest counties have dropped all pending misdemeanor cases of marijuana possession while Denver prosecutors are dropping or reviewing pending marijuana possession cases.
If Colorado's marijuana ballot measure is not blocked, it would take effect on Jan. 5, the deadline for the governor to add the amendment to the state constitution. The measure allows adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and six marijuana plants, though public use of the drug and driving while intoxicated are prohibited.
Under the Washington state initiative marijuana possession of an ounce or less would become legal on Dec. 6 if the measure is not blocked, though setting up a state-run sales operation would take a year.
In Washington State, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said after the election she, too, would respect the will of the people.
"We are entering uncharted waters and many questions lie ahead as we work to implement this law," said spokesman Cory Curtis. "Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, we are unsure how the federal government will proceed."
The Washington measure would ban sales to people under 21 and require growers and sellers to obtain a license from the state’s liquor control board. Wholesale and retail sales will be taxed at 25 percent, and will be used to fund drug prevention, schools and health insurance. The state would also establish a legal limit of tetrahydracannabinol (THC) blood levels for driving. (THC is the active ingredient in marijuana).
“The beginning of the end has begun,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), wrote at his blog the day after Election Day.
“Yesterday’s elections have forever changed the playing field regarding cannabis prohibition laws in America (and probably in large parts of the world too),” he said according to the Colorado Independent.