Pubdate: Sat, 17 Nov 2012
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2012 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


In October 2010, with a quixotic marijuana initiative leading in 
California polls, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder answered an 
urgent letter from retired heads of the federal Drug Enforcement 

"Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes 
Proposition 19," Holder wrote, declaring he would "vigorously 
enforce" federal law if California voters passed the measure, which 
would have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults over 21 
and allowed retail sales of pot.

This year, Holder notably declined to respond as the retired DEA 
administrators sent him another anxious letter expressing opposition 
to marijuana legalization efforts. This time, voters in two states, 
Washington and Colorado, voted 55 percent to 45 percent to legalize 
marijuana beyond medical use, upping the stakes in America's marijuana debate.

California, which passed America's first medical marijuana initiative 
in 1996 and pushed the envelope on legalization in 2010, has become 
an also-ran in the discussion. The state also lags in regulation of 
medical cannibis.

"It feels like you guys are still going through the awkward step of 
adolescence, and Colorado and Washington have gone on to the next 
step," said Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver's 
Sturm College of Law who researches marijuana policy.

In California, where Holder's letter was widely publicized and 
flipped the polls as Proposition 19 went down to defeat, marijuana 
advocates hope successful legalization votes elsewhere will at least 
persuade the Legislature to regulate the state's existing medical 
marijuana industry, which operates in an amorphous legal haze.

"This is called a game-changer," said Ellen Komp, California deputy 
director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana 
Laws. The group backed failed legislation this year to license 
California medical marijuana dispensaries and growers in hopes that 
stricter state oversight would help repel an ongoing federal crackdown.

"No one thought we were going to get a full legalization measure 
anywhere ... Now everyone is waiting to see what the federal response 
will be in Colorado and Washington."

Don Duncan is the California director of Americans for Safe Access, 
an advocacy group for medical marijuana users. He said the 
developments in Colorado and Washington may make it easier to 
persuade California lawmakers  who have been wary of being seen as 
champions for marijuana stores  to set rules for the state's medical 
cannabis industry when a new bill is introduced in January.

"I'm guardedly optimistic this changes the landscape in our favor," 
Duncan said. "We're not the most radical people at the table anymore."

The four U.S. attorneys in California have been systematically 
cracking down on the state's medical marijuana businesses, contending 
that many are cash-reaping enterprises profiteering in violation of 
both the federal Controlled Substances Act and state medical 
marijuana laws, which require pot operations to be nonprofit.

In an interview this week, Sacramento U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner 
said the votes in Washington and Colorado won't have any immediate 
impact on federal enforcement efforts in California.

"In the short term, I don't think it's going to have much effect on 
what we're doing here in California," Wagner said. "We're not really 
in the business of trying to shape state legislation or state policy. 
We're in the business of enforcing federal law, and so long as 
conditions in California stay the same, our enforcement efforts are 
going to be pretty much the same."

Federal officials have said little so far about how they will respond 
to legalization of recreational marijuana sales and use in Colorado 
and Washington.

Compared with California  where Wagner has called the medical 
marijuana industry an "unregulated free-for-all"  federal crackdowns 
on medical marijuana outlets in Colorado have been considerably more 
restrained. That is credited in large part to Colorado's efforts to 
strictly regulate its medical marijuana market.

Medical marijuana workers in Colorado must be licensed by the state. 
All transactions and shipments are videotaped, and a state policing 
agency  the Colorado Medical Marijuana Enforcement Bureau  oversees 
the industry.

Kamin, the University of Denver professor, said the perceived success 
of Colorado's medical marijuana regulatory oversight made it easier 
for voters there to sanction the use of marijuana as a purely 
pleasurable pursuit for adults.

"Everything is already in place with regulations we can cut and 
paste. And we know it works," Kamin said.

Analysts say voter demographics also played a role. Unlike in 
California, where Proposition 19 lost by 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent 
in 2010, the Colorado and Washington measures played out during a 
presidential election year with a more diverse electorate, including 
a strong turnout among young voters.

Colorado was a presidential swing state  a factor advocates suggest 
may have dissuaded President Barack Obama's attorney general, Holder, 
from weighing in this time around.

"I think it's safe to say that there were politics involved," said 
Brian Vicente, co-director of the Amendment 64 campaign. "Marijuana 
is demonstrably more popular in Colorado than President Obama."

The president won Colorado  but the pot measure got a greater share 
of the state vote.

Marijuana advocates in Washington and Colorado said they learned from 
the defeat of California's Proposition 19. The two victorious 
measures added provisions for state regulation of recreational 
sales  and the first-ever standards for testing drivers for pot impairment.

"This is a maturation of the discussion on marijuana," said Allison 
Holcomb, director of the New Approach Washington campaign that passed 
the legalization measure. "It changed the dynamic of the conversation 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom