Pot Measures’ Passage Puts States in Quandary


DENVER—Now that measures legalizing some recreational marijuana for adults use have won approval in Colorado and Washington, state regulators and lawmakers must decide how to navigate federal opposition as they implement voters’ desires.

Colorado voters passed a measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana. Among its advocates were Betty Aldworth, center, a director of the drive to pass it, and co-directors Brian Vicente, left, and Mason Tvert.

The measures flout federal law, under which marijuana sales and possession remain illegal. Oregon voters Tuesday rejected a similar pot-legalization measure.

“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who opposed the measure. “This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

Washington Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, who opposed the measure, said her state was “entering uncharted waters.”

Following the vote, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, John Walsh, issued a statement that Mr. Walsh’s office was reviewing the state’s initiative, adding that there had been no change in the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal marijuana law.

The federal government’s selective prosecution of state medical marijuana laws offers a possible road map for how it will respond to the Colorado and Washington measures, said Robert Mikos, an expert in drug law at Vanderbilt Law School.

Prosecutors, he said, have so far tended to target larger medical-marijuana dispensaries, particularly those next to school zones, while giving a pass to people growing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

In August, Mr. Walsh sent warning letters to medical marijuana stores that were operating next to schools, warning them to close down within 45 days or face federal enforcement.

But other than those letters, Mr. Walsh’s office has taken a “fairly hands off” approach to medical marijuana operators, said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana.

The federal government will face practical constraints in prosecuting the new drugs laws, Mr. Mikos said. “It’ll be tough to get enough DEA agents to go after the hundreds if not thousands of distributors you’ll have in Colorado and Washington.”

The Colorado measure, which passed with 55% of the vote, will let residents 21 years and older grow and possess up to one ounce of pot after the governor signs it into law. The state will allow marijuana sales at special stores starting in 2014.

Mr. Vicente estimates the law would generate some $180 million in taxes and savings over the next three years. Advocates say savings would arise from the state’s not prosecuting and incarcerating some people who use marijuana.

“We’re absolutely committed to the responsible implementation of this law,” he said. “We want to be a model for the rest of the country on how to do this right.”

Opponents of pot decriminalization said the conflict between state and federal laws will generate confusion. One sector stuck in the middle is banking, said Don Childears, president of the Colorado Bankers Association. New marijuana distributors operating legally under state law would likely require banking services, he said, but federal laws forbids it. “It made no sense to create this legal confrontation that we’re now facing,” he said.

Washington’s new pot law calls for legislators to design from scratch a homegrown industry for cultivation, processing and retailing sales of marijuana within state boundaries to people 21 or older. The state liquor-control board will oversee licensing and inspection.

Proponents argued that stand-alone marijuana stores could generate tax revenue of $500 to $600 million annually for the state.

Federal prosecutors have occasionally filed criminal charges against licensed medical marijuana distributors in a number of states and have pursued civil suits in which they seized the distributors’ assets.

—Ana Campoy contributed to this article.

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