Colorado, Washington blow smoke in feds’ face by OK’ing pot for fun

In passing amendments in Colorado and Washington state for the first time legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, voters may have placed themselves in the cross hairs of the federal government — which steadfastly has maintained that possession of the drug remains a federal crime.

The amendments, which allow those 21 and older in Washington state to purchase an ounce of marijuana from a licensed retailer and in Colorado to possess an ounce of the drug and grow as many as six plants in private, set the stage for a possible showdown with the Obama administration and a demand for action on the question by Congress.

A legal battle with the Justice Department is possible, even probable.

Although the amendments will end the enforcement of existing marijuana laws by state authorities in Colorado and Washington, the Justice Department said Wednesday that its enforcements of federal drug laws “remain unchanged.” The federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed the amendment, said Wednesday that voters in his state “have spoken, and we have to respect their will.” He called implementation of the law a “complicated process” but said state authorities intended to “follow through” on it.

“That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” he said, adding that his state still must navigate federal laws before residents can buy and sell marijuana legally. The Colorado amendment is scheduled to go into effect in June. The Washington law starts in December 2013.

A watershed moment

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which worked closely with local and national allies to draft the amendments, build coalitions and raise funds, said Colorado and Washington are not just the first U.S. states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but also the first political jurisdictions in the world to approve regulating, taxing and controlling marijuana similar to alcohol.

“The victories in Colorado and Washington are of historic significance not just for Americans but for all countries debating the future of marijuana prohibition in their own countries,” Mr. Nadelmann said. “This is now a mainstream issue, with citizens more or less divided on the issue but increasingly inclined to favor responsible regulation of marijuana over costly and ineffective prohibitionist policies.”

He said the campaign in Washington state gained “strength and legitimacy” from an unprecedented number of endorsements by elected officials as well as former and current law enforcement officials.

“Marijuana policy reform remains an issue where the people lead and the politicians follow,” he said, “but Washington state shows that many politicians are beginning to catch up.”

Mr. Nadelmann also described as “notable” the silence of Obama administration officials who two years ago spoke out against California’s Proposition 19 but refrained from intervening this year.

“That bodes well,” he said, “for both states’ prospects of implementing their new laws without undue federal interference.”

He attributed the silence of the Obama administration — and of the Mitt Romney campaign — to “political judgments” based on a Gallup poll last year that found for the first time that 50 percent of Americans supported making marijuana legal and 46 percent were opposed. He said public support has shifted dramatically over the past two decades — especially over the past five years — as majorities of men, 18- to 49-year-olds, liberals, moderates, independents, Democrats and voters in Western, Midwestern and Eastern states now support making marijuana legal.

Mr. Nadelmann said the Obama administration remained silent on the Colorado and Washington state amendments despite requests by former federal drug-policy officials that the administration denounce marijuana-legalization measures.

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