Pubdate: Wed, 07 Nov 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: Jack Healy


DENVER - For supporters of legalizing marijuana, it was a historic
moment, one that drew comparisons to the end of Prohibition: On Tuesday,
voters in Colorado and Washington State made it legal to smoke pot
recreationally, without any prescription or medical excuse.

But as Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado cautioned voters on Tuesday
night: "Don't break out the Cheetos or the Goldfish too quickly."

For one thing, it will be a month before the measures are officially
on the books, and longer still before state officials write the rules,
tax codes and other regulations creating new state-licensed retail
marijuana shops. But the larger, looming problem is a clash with the
federal government, which still views marijuana as a Schedule I
prohibited substance and has cracked down on states, like California
and Montana, that have voted to allow medical marijuana.

In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement
Agency said the Justice Department was reviewing the ballot measures
and declined to comment directly on how officials would respond to
them. But he said the agency's enforcement of federal drug laws
"remains unchanged." The United States attorneys in Denver and Seattle
responded with nearly identical statements, offering no clue on
whether they would sue to block the measures from being put into effect.

It is a murky landscape now, one that potentially pits voters who
supported President Obama and legalization against the president's own
Justice Department. In 2010, weeks before California voted on an
unsuccessful initiative to legalize marijuana, Attorney General Eric
H. Holder Jr. announced that authorities would still aggressively
prosecute marijuana laws.

But that has not always been the case. In Colorado, the federal
government has largely allowed the state-regulated medical-marijuana
industry to operate, and supporters said they hoped the government
would take a similar laissez-faire stance as the new laws took effect.

"I don't see D.E.A. agents sweeping into Colorado and Washington and
enforcing drug laws that were previously enforced by local agencies,"
said Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief who campaigned for
the Washington measure despite a personal preference for dry martinis
over pot brownies. "It would be extremely poor politics. The will of
the people has been expressed."

Although elected officials, parents' groups and top law enforcement
figures opposed the measures, they nevertheless won support with
voters who saw little harm with regulating marijuana similarly to the
way alcohol is. Colorado's marijuana law passed with 54 percent
support, and Washington's with 55 percent.

Colorado and Washington are among 18 states with medical marijuana
laws, but they become the first in the nation to approve the use for
recreational purposes. A similar measure in Oregon failed on Tuesday.

As soon as the laws are certified, it will be legal under Colorado and
Washington law for adults 21 years and older to possess up to an ounce
of marijuana. In Colorado, people will be able to grow as many as six
plants. In Washington, users will have to buy their marijuana from
state-licensed providers.

"They can't arrest you for it, and they can't seize it," Mr. Stamper
said. "It's yours."

The measures will also set up regulations for industrial hemp, a
fibrous plant that contains traces of the main psychoactive chemical
in marijuana.

The laws do not allow people to light up in public, and cities and
counties will be able to block marijuana retailers, in much the same
way that blue laws have restricted alcohol sales for decades. And it
remains illegal to drive a motor vehicle while high on the drug.

Supporters say the laws will end thousands of small-scale drug arrests
while freeing law enforcement to focus on larger crimes. They estimate
that taxing marijuana will bring in millions of dollars of new revenue
for governments, and will save court systems and police departments
additional millions.

Opponents warned that the law - despite its 21-year age minimum -
would set Colorado and Washington on a collision course with the
federal government and encourage teenagers to use marijuana.

It is still unclear how much will change. The streets here in Denver
and across Colorado are already lined with shops, their windows
decorated with green crosses and pot leaves, advertising all-natural
plant treatments and herbal health aids.

"Coloradans are accustomed to having this stuff above ground,
supervised by state authorities and having it regulated," said Ethan
Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which
supported legalization.

To advocates, the real power of the measures' passage may be that they
signal a change in the way voters think about drugs and drug policy in
the United States.

Brian Vicente, a leading campaigner for the Colorado initiative,
summed it up this way: "It's a historic one, man." A version of this
article appeared in print on November 8, 2012, on page P15 of the New
York edition with the headline: Voters Ease Marijuana Laws in 2
States, but Legal Questions Remain.
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