Marijuana legalization
9:44 am
Wed November 7, 2012

Feds expected to battle Washington, Colorado over legal marijuana

Washington joined Colorado in voting to become the first states to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana for recreational use, but people shouldn't expect to be able to buy a bag of legitimate weed any time soon.

Nor should they expect the law to go into effect with out a fight with federal law agencies, said Sam Kamin, professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“My gut feeling is that the federal government won’t currently tolerate the commercial recreational sale of marijuana, that is they will not allow it to be regulated like alcohol. That just seems a bridge too far,” he said.

“The federal government has been tolerant of marijuana when it’s been under the guise of medicine, when it’s been relatively limited, but to move from those people who have a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana to all adults over the age of 21 is just an enormous growth in the industry.”

The Justice Department is offering no enlightenment on this front yet.

"The Department of Justice's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," read identical statements issued by the U.S. attorney's offices in Denver and Seattle. "The department is reviewing the ballot initiative here and in other states and has no additional comment at this time."

State laws can be ruled invalid when they "frustrate the purpose" of federal law, and the DOJ could sue to try to block the measures from taking effect on those grounds.

Former police chief praises law

“I cannot tell you how happy I am that after forty years of the racist, destructive exercise in futility that is the war on drugs, my home state of Washington has now put us on a different path,” said Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief in a press release.

“There are people who have lost today: drug cartels, street gangs, those who profit from keeping American incarceration rates the highest in the world. For the rest of us, however, this is a win. It’s a win for taxpayers. It’s a win for police. It’s a win for all those who care about social justice. This is indeed a wonderful day.”

The work to come

Though Washington's Initiative 502 decriminalizes the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana beginning Dec. 6, the state has a year to come up with rules governing the growing, processing and labeling of pot before sales to adults over 21 can begin.

"We have a lot of work ahead," said Alison Holcomb, campaign manager for the Washington initiative. "The biggest issue I-502 presents for the federal government is that we are creating a robust regulatory scheme."

Initiative 502 calls for a system of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores where adults over 21 can buy up to an ounce of marijuana. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.

Home-growing marijuana for recreational reasons remains barred, as does the public display or use of pot.

Celebrating by lighting up

That didn't stop some supporters from celebrating Tuesday night with joints on a sidewalk outside the campaign party in downtown Seattle.

Ben Schroeter said he was selling marijuana at the 502 party at the Hotel Andra in downtown Seattle. He said that he has been selling marijuana for 37 years.
Credit Gabriel Spitzer / KPLU

"I've been selling pot for 38 years," said supporter Ben Schroeter. "I've been busted multiple times, most recently eight days ago. Prohibition is stupid."

With 50 percent of precincts reporting, the Washington measure was passing with 55 percent of the vote. Colorado also approved recreational use, while a measure in Oregon was defeated.

State financial experts estimate Washington's initiative could raise nearly $2 billion in tax revenue over the next five years, with the money going toward education, health care, substance abuse prevention and basic government services.

The case for legalization

Sponsors and supporters ranged from public health experts to two of the DOJ's top former officials in Seattle, U.S. Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer.

Legalization could reduce small-time, pot-related arrests and give supporters a chance to show whether decriminalization is a viable strategy in the war on drugs.

The effort raised more than $6 million in contributions, with more than $2 million of that coming from Progressive Insurance Co. founder Peter Lewis, who used marijuana to treat pain from a leg amputation.

Some people in the marijuana reform community also objected to the DUI standard, which they called arbitrarily strict.

Little organized opposition 

The campaign had little organized opposition but raised objections by law enforcement officials and some substance abuse experts who said increasing access to pot was a bad idea.

"Legalizing is going to increase marijuana use among kids and really create a mess with the federal government," said Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. "It's a bit of a tragedy for the state."

For many voters, it came down to the notion that decades of marijuana prohibition have done more harm than good.

George Cannon, 43, of Seattle said it was an issue of personal freedom: "I'm not into getting into other people's business."

Initiative 502 found strong support among liberals and moderates, Democrats and those with more than a high school degree. Independents and women were split on the issue, as were suburbanites.

I-502 fared well in King County and the Puget Sound area, but not in Eastern Washington, Southwest Washington or on the Olympic Peninsula.

Who voted against it

Opposition came from voters 65 and older, conservatives, Republicans and those with a high school degree or less. Weekly churchgoers rejected the measure, while those who said they never attend religious services or considered themselves occasional churchgoers favored legalizing pot.

The survey of Washington state voters was conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research. It includes preliminary results from a survey of 1,493 voters who cast ballots early or submitted absentee ballots, and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4.

Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The figure was higher for subgroups.