SEATTLE — Washington joined Colorado in voting to become the first states to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana for recreational use, but people shouldn't expect to be able to buy a bag of legitimate weed any time soon.
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Though Washington's Initiative 502 decriminalizes the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana beginning Dec. 6, the state has a year to come up with rules governing the growing, processing and labeling of pot before sales to adults over 21 can begin.
In addition, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so the big question is whether the federal government will allow the measures in Washington and Colorado to take effect without a fight.
The Justice Department is offering no enlightenment on that front.
"The Department of Justice's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," read identical statements issued by the U.S. attorney's offices in Denver and Seattle. "The department is reviewing the ballot initiative here and in other states and has no additional comment at this time."
State laws can be ruled invalid when they "frustrate the purpose" of federal law, and the DOJ could sue to try to block the measures from taking effect on those grounds.
"We have a lot of work ahead," said Alison Holcomb, campaign manager for the Washington initiative. "The biggest issue I-502 presents for the federal government is that we are creating a robust regulatory scheme." Initiative 502 calls for a system of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores where adults over 21 can buy up to an ounce of marijuana. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.
Home-growing marijuana for recreational reasons remains barred, as does the public display or use of pot. That didn't stop some supporters from celebrating Tuesday night with joints on a sidewalk outside the campaign party in downtown Seattle.
"I've been selling pot for 38 years," said supporter Ben Schroeter. "I've been busted multiple times, most recently eight days ago. Prohibition is stupid." With 50 percent of precincts reporting, the Washington measure was passing with 55 percent of the vote. Colorado also approved recreational use, while a measure in Oregon was defeated.
State financial experts estimate Washington's initiative could raise nearly $2 billion in tax revenue over the next five years, with the money going toward education, health care, substance abuse prevention and basic government services. Sponsors and supporters ranged from public health experts to two of the DOJ's top former officials in Seattle, U.S. Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer.
Legalization could reduce small-time, pot-related arrests and give supporters a chance to show whether decriminalization is a viable strategy in the war on drugs.
The effort raised more than $6 million in contributions, with more than $2 million of that coming from Progressive Insurance Co. founder Peter Lewis, who used marijuana to treat pain from a leg amputation.
Some people in the marijuana reform community also objected to the DUI standard, which they called arbitrarily strict.
The campaign had little organized opposition but raised objections by law enforcement officials and some substance abuse experts who said increasing access to pot was a bad idea.
"Legalizing is going to increase marijuana use among kids and really create a mess with the federal government," said Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. "It's a bit of a tragedy for the state."
For many voters, it came down to the notion that decades of marijuana prohibition have done more harm than good. George Cannon, 43, of Seattle said it was an issue of personal freedom: "I'm not into getting into other people's business."
Estimates have showed pot taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales won't start until state officials make rules to govern the legal weed industry.;