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

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U.S. Attorney John F. Walsh said in a statement only that the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act “remains unchanged.” His spokesman, Jeff Dorschner, also said that “no further statement or comment, on or off the record, will be made at this point in time.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre added that the department is reviewing the ballot initiatives but would have no additional comment at this time.

Colorado moving ahead

Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers said in a statement that despite his “strongly held belief that the legalization of marijuana on a state level is very bad public policy,” voters can be assured that his office will move forward in assisting its implementation. But he warned Colorado residents that the federal government still has the ability to criminally sanction possession, use and distribution of marijuana, even if grown, distributed and used in a single state — an enforcement responsibility upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Therefore, absent action by Congress, Coloradans should not expect to see successful legal challenges to the ability of the federal government to enforce its marijuana laws in Colorado,” he said.

Mr. Suthers called on the Justice Department to make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by the state’s new law — particularly on large wholesale growers — as soon as possible to help state regulators and Colorado residents make decisions about implementation of the new law.

He also noted that while proponents of the amendment told Colorado voters that the law would impose a surtax of up to 15 percent on marijuana sales that would result in up to $40 million each year going to schools in the state, the amendment did not comply with required language under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and “no such tax will be imposed.”

“Instead, it will be up to the Colorado legislature whether to refer such a tax to the voters and up to the voters of Colorado whether to actually impose the tax,” he said.

State-level decisions

Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, said the votes in Colorado and Washington state represent “uncharted water” in the drug legalization movement. Although much of the focus will be on how federal officials respond, he said, little-known state agencies will play key roles.

“A lot of how this plays out will depend on the decisions of the state agencies regulating this,” he said.

He also said he expects ballot initiatives elsewhere in the country, though other states will be watching for any sign of intervention by federal authorities.

“How the federal government responds will send a message to other states,” Mr. Kilmer said.

While Colorado and Washington state are the first to legalize recreational marijuana, medical marijuana is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. It has been estimated that Los Angeles County has more medical marijuana shops than liquor stores. Despite state determinations that medicinal marijuana shops are legal, they have been the targets of raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration, prosecution by the Justice Department and sanctions by the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2010, when a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California was offered, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued a warning letter saying the Justice Department would “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws if the state initiative passed — which it did not. Mr. Holder did not publicly comment on this year’s efforts to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington state.

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