Weed Wars: Don’t Hold Your Breath for Obama to Support Smokers’ Rights

Voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana—now the real fight begins.

Students and others smoke marijuana at a pro-marijuana rally at the University of Colorado in Boulder
State efforts to legalize marijuana will be in jeopardy if the federal government intervenes. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

If you happened to watch The Daily Show last night, the biggest cheers from Jon Stewart’s presumed liberal audience didn’t come when Stewart discussed the reelection of Barack Obama to the presidency. Nor did the roar of victory come with mention of the multiple states that legalized gay marriage on election night.

The wildest post-election applause came from a brief mention from Stewart that marijuana was now officially legal in some parts of the United States.

Thanks to successful ballot initiatives, voters in both Colorado and Washington have officially legalized marijuana in their states—paving the way for legal, state-regulated sales of the drug. The specifics of the two state plans vary, but the general sentiment is the same. Adults age 21 and over will be allowed to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana legally, and those sales will be taxed by the state. Use of marijuana will be legal for of-age adults, and a new classification of driving-under-the-influence of the drug will be added to the penal code.

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Sounds like a responsible, adult plan for 21st-century post-moral-majority America. Indeed, the presumed smokers of Stewart’s audience aren’t alone in supporting the plans. According to recent Gallup polls, half of Americans support full legalization of marijuana and 86 percent recognize and support its medical application. 

The popularity of Colorado and Washington’s initiatives raises a giant question: What happens now?

One short answer: Don’t expect Denver and Seattle to turn into Amsterdam overnight.

“This is a symbolic victory for [legalization] advocates, but it will be short-lived. They are facing an uphill battle.”

Washington’s marijuana initiative isn’t scheduled to take effect until December 6. Once that marker is reached, legal, state-sanctioned sales of marijuana cannot get through until the Washington Liquor Control Board creates a system for licensing and taxation. The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that system likely won’t be in place until sometime in 2014. Local and state police, however, have begun putting previous marijuana-related investigations on hold until they receive further guidance from state and county prosecutors.

Colorado faces a similar timetable. The law won’t take effect until the vote is certified, which likely won’t be until later November. Once certification occurs, state lawmakers have until July to adopt a regulatory framework for taxation and licensing.

“Right now we’re celebrating the victory,” Betty Aldworth, advocacy director for Colorado’s Yes on 64 campaign, tells TakePart. “We’ve had some private conversations with state representatives. And we are cautiously optimistic that the federal government will recognize marijuana is safer behind the counter than on the street.”

All initial indications from the federal level, however, show that “cautiously optimistic” may be too rosy a disposition.

“This is a symbolic victory for [legalization] advocates, but it will be short-lived,” Kevin Sabet, former adviser to the Obama administration’s drug czar, told reporters Wednesday. “They are facing an uphill battle with implementing this, in the face of...presidential opposition and in the face of federal enforcement opposition.”

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan’s office issued a terse statement:

“The Department of Justice’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. The Department is reviewing the ballot initiative here and in other states and has no additional comment at this time.”

In other words, federal agencies, and by extension President Obama, are making up their minds how to handle the situation. If statements by the U.S. Attorney’s office are any indication, however, an end to weed prohibition will not come lightly.

Advocates in Colorado and Washington are hopeful the initial tough talk is just posturing. President Obama no longer has to worry about reelection. His healthcare mandate has survived all obstacles to its inevitable 2014 implementation. He does not appear to have any sweeping landmark legislation on his agenda. The bipartisan desire to cut the budget has never been stronger.

If ever there was a time to ease the war on drugs, now is it.

“We’re looking forward to connecting with our friends in Washington,” says Aldworth of Colorado’s Yes on 64, “to see how things are moving forward for them.”

Two states that backed Barack Obama in the election have also spoken loudly and unequivocally to end marijuana prohibtion. The majority of Americans agrees with their position.

It’s now up to President Obama to start listening.

Will legalizing marijuana lead to an increase of drug abuse? Say why or why not in COMMENTS.

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