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Will Obama Go After Legal Pot in Washington and Colorado?

A near supermajority of American citizens believes the federal government ought to respect the states' new laws.

Photo Credit: Shutter Stock


History was made on Election Day. For the first time ever, a majority of voters decided at the ballot box to abolish cannabis prohibition.

In Colorado, 55 percent of voters – 4 percent more than favored President Barack Obama – decided in favor of Amendment 64, a constitutional amendment allowing for the legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and/or the cultivation of up to six cannabis plants in private by persons age 21 and over. Longer term, the law seeks to establish regulations regarding the licensed production and commercial sale of marijuana to adults. 

In Washington, 56 percent of voters decided in favor of Initiative 502, removing criminal and civil penalties regarding the private adult possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use (as well as the possession of up to 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form, and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused product in liquid form). As in Colorado, Washington’s law also calls for the implementation of regulations governing the commercial production and sale of cannabis to select patrons age 21 and older. 

To date, local lawmakers have expressed little, if any, resistance to these laws’ implementation. In the days immediately following the election, prosecutors in some of Colorado and Washington’s largest counties began voluntarily dismissing hundreds of pending marijuana possession cases ahead of the laws’ official enactment. They didn’t have long to wait. Outgoing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire officially signed I-502 into law on December 6. Her signature immediately legalized, for the first time in modern history, the personal possession and use of cannabis by adults in private.

Several hundred activists celebrated the occasion by openly smoking cannabis in public at the iconic Seattle Space Needle – an act of civil disobedience that is classified under the new law as a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine, but was nonetheless ignored by local law enforcement who failed to issue a single citation. Behind the scenes, Washington state regulators are reportedly working on an expedited timetable to finalize and enact separate regulations allowing for the plant’s commercial production and sale by state-authorized proprietors, an effort that newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee supports.  

“My belief is Washington has worked its will,” the incoming governor stated at a press conference in mid-November. “The voters have spoken. I was not supportive of the initiative but I’m going to be fully supportive of protecting, defending and implementing the will of the voter – which will essentially allow the use of recreational marijuana in our state. … This is a local decision of a local state, and we’re going to do everything we can in this administration in that regard and hopefully that’ll happen.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed similar sentiments on December 10 when he signed an executive order enacting Amendment 64 into law (and amending the state’s constitution) several weeks earlier than anticipated. Despite the governor’s previous public opposition to the measure, Hickenlooper announced: “Voters were loud and clear on Election Day. We will begin working immediately with the General Assembly and state agencies to implement Amendment 64.”

As in Washington, Amendment 64’s provisions providing state legal protections for adults who possess, consume or cultivate personal use amounts of cannabis in private became law upon the governor’s signature. The implementation of additional provisions regarding the commercial growing and sale of cannabis by state-licensed individuals will be addressed in the coming months by state regulators and by the members of a 24-member task force.

Yet despite the national – and in some instances, international – discourse stimulated by these unprecedented states’ votes, the Obama administration, so far, has remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped. Although some anonymous "senior White House and Justice Department" officials recently spoke to the New York Times regarding various possible actions the federal government may take to address the situations in Colorado and Washington, formal pronouncements have been few and far between. On the eve of the enactment of I-502, the US Attorneys Office for the Western District of Washington reiterated that cannabis remains prohibited under federal law, a fact that was never in dispute, but offered no insight as to whether the federal government – which continues to classify marijuana as a substance equally dangerous to heroin – intends to aggressively enforce that prohibition. More recently, following the initial implementation of Colorado’s marijuana legalization law, the US attorney general cryptically told Bloomberg News that the administration will formally announce its intentions “relatively soon,” but added no further details. 

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