After Tuesday’s election, marijuana is now legal in Washington and Colorado. Penalties for adults over the age of 21 possessing up to an ounce of marijuana have been eliminated, on a state level.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced, “The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through.” But in an ominous warning to would-be marijuana users, and to illustrate the point that marijuana is still illegal under Federal law, he added, “don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”
What will the Federal Government Do?
There is a lot of suspicion flying around as to which way the Feds will proceed now that state and local law enforcement is out the business of marijuana arrests. Will the Feds crackdown or turn the other cheek? Do the Feds really have the resources to start enforcing Federal marijuana laws on a street-level?
My thought is this: I suspect adults smoking pot for recreational use in Washington and Colorado will not have to worry about being busted for smoking in public or possessing a joint. I just cannot imagine a scenario where the FBI and DEA spend the resources to bust individual users. It will be a lot for the Feds and the DEA to take over where state and local authorities left off before legalization. The DEA only has 5,000 agents nationwide – and has far bigger problems than Cheech and Chong to deal with.
The issue with lies more in what will happen on a larger commercial level. Marijuana would be legally available for commercial sale in Colorado by early 2014. When the legal marijuana businesses are set up, the Feds could move in and shut them down, arrest employees, or otherwise delegitimize them. Or they could decide to do nothing.
That being said, there could still be a Federal crackdown – or not. Former senior adviser to the Obama administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, Kevin Sabet said that, “once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the Feds to shut it down.” Others argue that there are reasons to be optimistic that the Feds will lay off.
An Unprecedented Event
We will have to see what transpires over the next year. In the meantime, the people have spoken. The votes were 54 percent in favor of Colorado’s Amendment 64, and 56 percent in favor of Washington’s Initiative 502. “To put this into historical context, there is no historical context,” said Tom Angell, spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “It’s the first time any state has ever voted to legalize marijuana — and two of them did it.”
This is 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. So, as pot reformers celebrate their long-sought victory, the threat of a confrontation with the federal government looms. Let’s hope the Federal government does the right thing and stays out of the fight.