The Rocky Mountain High just got a whole lot higher. On Tuesday night, Amendment 64 -- the measure seeking the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults -- was passed by Colorado voters, making Colorado the first state to end marijuana prohibition in the United States.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a vocal opponent to the measure, reacted to the passage of A64 in a statement late Tuesday night:
The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.
The passage of the state measure is without historical precedent and the consequences will likely be closely-watched around the world. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the authors/researchers behind the book "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know" pointed out that the measure in Colorado is truly groundbreaking, comparing it to the legalization that Amsterdam enjoys:
A common error is to believe that the Netherlands has already legalized cannabis (the preferred term for marijuana in Europe). What has been de facto legalized is only the retail sale of 5 grams (about a sixth of an ounce) or less. Production and wholesale distribution is still illegal, and that prohibition is enforced, which is largely why the price of sinsemilla in the “coffee shops” isn’t much different than the price in American dispensaries.
A64 will allow adults 21 and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana from specialty marijuana dispensaries and grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. Possession is limited to up to an ounce for personal use, but selling marijuana without a license, purchasing marijuana from a party who is not licensed as well as public use of marijuana will remain illegal.
Although Colorado "legalized it," it will be several months, perhaps as long as a year, before Colorado adults 21-and-over can enjoy the legal sale of marijuana. However, the parts of the amendment related to individual behavior will go into effect as soon as Governor Hickenlooper certifies the results of the vote, a proclamation he is obligated to do within 30 days of the election, The Colorado Independent reported.
It's a huge victory for the Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the pro-pot group behind Amendment 64. "Over the past eight years in Colorado, we have argued that it is irrational to punish adults for choosing to use a product that is far less harmful than alcohol," Mason Tvert, co-director of the campaign, said in a statement. "Today, the voters agreed. Colorado will no longer have laws that steer people toward using alcohol, and adults will be free to use marijuana instead if that is what they prefer. And we will be better off as a society because of it."
This is the second time Colorado voted on legal weed, in 2006 Coloradans voted the measure down, but not in 2012. Tvert told The Huffington Post in an August interview why he thought this year might be different:
The 2006 initiative would have simply removed the penalties for the possession of marijuana legal for individuals 21 years of age or older. The current initiative proposes a fully regulated system of cultivation and sales, which will eliminate the underground marijuana market and generate tens of millions of dollars per year in new revenue and criminal justice savings. It also directs the legislature to regulate the cultivation of industrial hemp, a versatile, popular, and environmentally friendly agricultural crop.
More importantly, voters are more informed about marijuana than ever before. They have also experienced the emergence of a state-regulated medical marijuana system that has not produced any serious problems, but has provided a number of benefits. We now know that marijuana cultivation and sales can be regulated, and that medical marijuana businesses do not contribute to increased crime. We have also seen marijuana use among high school students decrease since the state began implementing regulations, whereas it has increased nationwide where there are no regulations. And, of course, localities and the state have seen how much revenue can be generated through the legal sale of marijuana that would have otherwise gone into the underground market. Voters in Colorado no longer need to imagine what a legal and regulated system of marijuana sales would look like; they have seen it.
It's also worth noting that 2012 is a presidential election year, so we will benefit from increased voter turnout compared to an off-year election like 2006. Historically, the more people who vote, the more support marijuana reform initiatives receive.
On the same night that Colorado passed Amendment 64, Washington state passed Initiative 502 which regulates and taxes sales of small amounts of marijuana for adults, The Associated Press reports. Oregon also had a similar recreational marijuana measure on the ballot, but as of publishing and with 47 percent of precincts reporting, it looked as if it would not pass.
Under Amendment 64, marijuana is taxed and regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco. It gives state and local governments the ability to control and tax the sale of small amounts of marijuana to adults age 21 and older. According to the Associated Press, analysts project that that tax revenue could generate somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year in the state. An economist whose study was funded by a pro-pot group projects as much as a $60 million boost by 2017.
"Today, the people of Colorado have rejected the failed policy of marijuana prohibition," Brian Vicente, also a co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana, said in a statement. "Thanks to their votes, we will now reap the benefits of regulation. We will create new jobs, generation million of dollars in tax revenue, and allow law enforcement to focus on serious crimes. It would certainly be a travesty if the Obama administration used its power to impose marijuana prohibition upon a state whose people have declared, through the democratic process, that they want it to end."
The big unknown still is if the federal government will allow a regulated marijuana market to take shape. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was a vocal opponent of California's legalization initiative in 2010 saying he would "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana prohibition, has continued to remain silent on the issue this year.
In September, Holder was urged by nine former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to take a stand against marijuana legalization again. "To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," the nine said in the letter to holder obtained by Reuters.
In October, those same DEA drug warriors joined by former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy on a teleconference call to put additional pressure on Holder to speak out against Colorado's marijuana measure as well as similar initiatives on the ballot in Washington state and Oregon.
The drug warriors say that states that legalize marijuana for recreational use will trigger a "Constitutional showdown" with the federal government.
In a report published Sunday by NBC News, President Obama's former senior drug policy advisor said that if the marijuana initiatives pass, a war will be incited between the federal government and the states that pass them. "Once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the feds to shut it down," Sabet said.
But proponents of the legislation say they don't foresee federal agents interfering in states that have legalized cannabis, citing the federal government's silence on the issue this election cycle.
The DOJ has yet to formally announce its enforcement intentions, however, the clearest statement from the DOJ came from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who said his office's stance on the issue would be "the same as it's always been." During a recent appearance on "60 Minutes" Cole elaborated, "We're going to take a look at whether or not there are dangers to the community from the sale of marijuana and we're going to go after those dangers," Reuters reported.
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