Tuesday night, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, forever altering the course of the war on drugs. To put the passage of these groundbreaking measures into perspective, Tom Angell, spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said it best in a report by The Huffington Post's Matt Sledge:
"To put this into historical context, there is no historical context. It's the first time any state has ever voted to legalize marijuana -- and two of them did it."
The votes marked a significant shift from decades of tough-on-crime policies that burned through $1 trillion in tax dollars over 40 years, led to the arrest of 850,000 Americans for marijuana law violations in 2010 alone, and fueled the rise of deadly drug cartels abroad. But even as pot reformers celebrated their long-sought victories, the threat of a confrontation with the federal government loomed.
Both ballot measures would legalize recreational marijuana use only for adults, and cannabis would remain a controlled substance under federal law.
Colorado's Amendment 64 -- which won with 54 percent of the vote in favor, 46 percent opposed -- had vocal opponents during the run up to the election and many of those are sounding off in the wake of the unprecedented passage of the marijuana legalization measure. One of those opponents is Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who reacted in a statement:
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.
Cheetos and gold fish? LEAP's Tom Angell, for one, didn't appreciate the apparent joke the governor was making about marijuana users. "What an insult to the majority of voters who did not follow your recommendation, governor," responded Angell. "I wouldn't be surprised to see that comment bite him in the ass."
Back in September, Hickenlooper came out in opposition to the amendment saying, “Colorado is known for many great things –- marijuana should not be one of them." Hickenlooper added, "Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK."
Mason Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol -- the organization behind Amendment 64 -- had strong words for the governor: "Governor Hickenlooper's statement today ranks as one of the most hypocritical statements in the history of politics," Tvert said. "After building a personal fortune by selling alcohol to Coloradans, he is now basing his opposition to this measure on concerns about the health of his citizens and the message being sent to children. We certainly hope he is aware that alcohol actually kills people. Marijuana use does not. The public health costs of alcohol use overall are approximately eight times greater per person than those associated with marijuana. And alcohol use is associated with violent crime. Marijuana use is not."
Not to mention that there is research that suggests that the governor's claim that legalized marijuana has the "potential to increase the number of children doing drugs" is debatable, at best. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that marijuana use among Colorado minors is going down, while it is simultaneously going up nationally. The drop in usage by Colorado teens as seen in the CDC data -- a drop below the national average -- coincides with the same period that the medical marijuana industry developed in the state, between 2009 and 2011.
Marijuana legalization advocates point to the data as sign that regulation is helping reduce marijuana use amongst minors. Mason Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told The Huffington Post "that even the partial regulation of marijuana can make it harder for young people to get their hands on marijuana. By regulating all marijuana sales, we can further reduce teen access and use."
And a 2011 study from economists at University of Colorado Denver and Montana State University may backs that claim up. "Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption" by Daniel I. Rees, from UCD, and D. Mark Anderson, from MSU looked at state level data from the more than a dozen states that had passed medical marijuana laws at the time of the study. Rees and Anderson found that there was no evidence of an increase in marijuana usage among minors in the states surveyed.
The details of what legal, taxed, recreational use marijuana looks like in Colorado remains unclear and it will likely be a year, before Colorado adults 21-and-over can enjoy the legal cultivation and 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.
In a post-election interview with 9News' Gary Shapiro, Denver mayor Michael Hancock, another opponent of the measure, addressed the passage of Amendment 64. "It's a very complicated matter," Hancock said to Shapiro. "I mean the reality is that it is still an illegal substance on the federal level. Our city attorneys as well as attorneys on the state level will have to reconcile that and how we move forward with implementation -- if we get that far. So, I know the Governor is already working on it and I've already instructed the city attorney to begin the process of taking a look at what it looks like with regards to the federal level."
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers issued a strong and detailed statement about how the amendment might be implemented in the state and also called out the Department of Justice to make its enforcement intentions known:
Despite my strongly held belief that the ‘legalization’ of marijuana on a state level is very bad public policy, voters can be assured that the Attorney General’s Office will move forward in assisting the pertinent executive branch agencies to implement this new provision in the Colorado Constitution.
Coloradans should be cognizant of two caveats, however. First the ability of the federal government to criminally sanction possession, use and distribution of marijuana, even if grown, distributed and used in a single state, was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Raich (545 US.1,2005). 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. Accordingly, I call upon the United States Department of Justice to make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by Amendment 64 (particularly large wholesale grow operations) as soon as possible in order to assist state regulators and the citizens of Colorado in making decisions about the implementation of Amendment 64.
Secondly, the proponents of Amendment 64 told voters that it imposed a surtax of up to 15 percent on marijuana sale that would result in up to $40 million each year going to K-12 schools in the state. In fact Amendment 64 did not comply with required language under the Taxpayers 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. Therefore, such revenue is speculative and will not be forthcoming when Amendment 64 begins to be implemented.
The DOJ has yet to formally announce its enforcement intentions. 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.
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.
A month later, those same drug warriors put added pressure on Holder saying that states that legalize marijuana for recreational use will trigger a "Constitutional showdown" with the federal government.
Hickenlooper announced Wednesday that he is trying to speak with Holder about how the DOJ will respond to Colorado's legalizing marijuana, The Denver Post reports.
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.
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.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh didn't clear things up with his office's statement about how they intend to enforce marijuana law in Colorado either. “The Department of Justice's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," Jeff Dorschner, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office, said. "In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time.”
Meanwhile, marijuana reformers are focused on successfully implementing the marijuana legalization laws that did pass Tuesday night in both Colorado and Washington. “Because of the victories in all of these places, we awakened this morning in a slightly better country. It’s a little safer, a little bit more just,” said Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and 34-year veteran of the Baltimore and Maryland State police departments. “And when the rest of the country follows the lead pioneered by the voters of Colorado and Washington, we’ll be closer to living in a country with a drug policy that is truly about public safety."