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The Future of Pot: Is Legalization Around the Corner In Colorado and Washington?

While Americans are becoming increasingly aware of prohibition's consequences, the legalization movement still has many obstacles to overcome.

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Resolving this issue is crucial for winning nonusers’ support for legalization. Some studies have suggested that driving under the influence of marijuana is less dangerous than driving drunk. A 2000 British driving-simulator experiment found that the stoned subjects drove better than people who had been drinking, because they knew their reaction time was impaired and they compensated by driving slower.

The problem, however, is that there is no standard for marijuana that indicates impairment as clearly as blood-alcohol concentration does. In occasional users, blood THC falls below 5 ng/ml about three hours after smoking, and there is some data that indicates an increased accident risk above that level, says Paul Armentano of NORML, but it’s “hardly definitive.” There is also limited data that chronic users can have more THC in their blood for longer periods without being impaired, he adds.

Colorado’s initiative has been less controversial among the state’s pot-smokers, although a Boulder group, Legalize2012, has denounced it as “fake legalization,” because of the one-ounce limit and because it would tax marijuana and regulate it like alcohol instead of like “grapes or tomatoes.” However, Legalize 2012 has not yet begun collecting signatures for its own initiative.

Such tensions between grassroots ganja activists and pot political professionals have been around for years, says Dominic Holden, a longtime legalization activist who is now news editor of The Stranger alternative weekly in Seattle. “The people who’ve been on the ground for a long time tend to resent it” when the “big boys” take over, he explains, but the professionals are the only ones who’ve won statewide campaigns. That pattern, he says, has reoccurred consistently since California’s 1996 Proposition 215 initiative, when consultants affiliated with the Drug Policy Alliance who were invited in to help with the campaign superseded locals like Dennis Peron, the San Francisco activist who spearheaded the city’s pioneering 1991 medical-marijuana initiative.  

Most of the cannabis-community opposition to I-502, Holden says, comes from medical-dispensary owners who fear losing money, and medical users who are protecting “their temporary comfort” at the expense of the freedom of Washington’s adult marijuana users. The choice, he adds, is that “we can have 10,000 arrests a year until 2016, or we can face the risk that a few people who have THC in their systems will be pulled over and convicted.”

Federal Obstacles

These initiatives would eliminate state marijuana prosecutions, but federal law will be a titanic obstacle to practical legalization, to the cannabis versions of vineyards, breweries and liquor stores operating freely and openly. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, any sale or cultivation of marijuana, regardless of whether it’s for getting high, medical use, industrial hemp, floral arrangements, or unsterilized birdseed, is a felony. For medical marijuana, both federal law and policy make no distinction between a meticulously administered nonprofit program that provides cannabis to prevent cancer patients from vomiting after chemotherapy, and a pot-selling dispensary that advertises “420 specials” and “free joint to new patients!” They are both felonies.

The Obama administration has attacked medical-marijuana providers more indirectly than the Bush administration did. It hasn’t abandoned SWAT-team raids, but has more often relied on threatening letters: Federal prosecutors notify dispensaries’ landlords that if they do not cease and desist from renting to drug dealers, their property will be subject to forfeiture and they may face federal drug charges. That tactic has worked in shutting down dispensaries in California and Washington. In January, Colorado’s U.S. attorney, John Walsh, sent out 23 such letters, demanding that the dispensaries close by the end of February.

Last April, the two U.S. attorneys in Washington informed Gov. Christine Gregoire that if the state licensed dispensaries, its employees would not be immune from federal prosecution. In October, a California appeals court said that the city of Long Beach was violating federal law by issuing permits for dispensaries. On January 24, San Francisco officials announced that they would no longer issue new permits.