Sunday, December 23, 2012

Marijuana officially legal but States Await Feds' Reaction

Marijuana stores in Colorado and Washington won't be open for at least a year, but new laws legalizing the drug took full effect in both states this month. Washington's Initiative 502 kicked in on Dec. 5, sparking a midnight gathering of marijuana enthusiasts near Seattle's Space Needle to celebrate the occasion. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper formalized Amendment 64 into his state's constitution just days later.

Though President Obama said there wouldn't be a federal campaign against individual marijuana users in Colorado and Washington, U.S. Attorneys in both states have reminded citizens that their responsibility to enforce pot prohibition remains unchanged. It remains to be seen what specific action they will take, but Attorney General Eric Holder said that a federal policy pronouncement is coming "relatively soon."

The Department of Justice could file a suit to enjoin the state laws, but that would be a bold attempt to subvert the will of the people, and there's no guarantee the suit would succeed. They could also try using civil asset forfeiture laws to seize cash, property and marijuana from the new dispensaries, which has been their primary tactic against medical marijuana dispensaries. They could even arrest the state employees who will oversee marijuana regulations, as U.S. Attorneys Mike Ormsby and Jenny Durkan threatened to do last year when Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire sought guidance with the state's proposed medical marijuana law.

But Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is hopeful that the Obama administration will do none of the above.

"The federal government has been using most of its resources in places with less restrictive marijuana regulations, like California and Montana," Armentano said. "Compare that to a state like Colorado, which has more regulations and has largely been left alone."

Marijuana cultivation and commerce will be tightly controlled in Colorado and Washington, so the federal government may give them some leeway to experiment. But the states are also expected to make big bucks from marijuana sales, and U.S. Attorneys have previously cited the potential for profit as a key motivator in their war against all pot, medical or otherwise.

And while it's true that Colorado has attracted less federal attention than California, which has taken the brunt of the U.S. Attorneys' asset forfeiture campaign, Colorado dispensaries haven't been completely immune. By threatening their landlords, U.S. Attorney John Walsh shut down 57 Colorado dispensaries this year without filing a single criminal charge. In Oregon, where marijuana legalization was rejected by 53 percent of voters in November, federal authorities have seized more than $255,000 in cash and six properties in the last 15 months.

Change Inside the Beltway

While marijuana laws in the states have changed dramatically in the last 15 years, attitudes on Capitol Hill have evolved at a slower pace. And until congress starts taking marijuana reform seriously, federal policy is unlikely to budge.

But with public support for legalization at an all-time high and two states openly revolting against prohibition, D.C. lawmakers may start coming around. A bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen introduced a bill last month that would amend the U.S. Controlled Substances Act to instruct the federal government not to interfere with state marijuana laws.

The bill is co-sponsored by longtime marijuana reform advocates like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, but it has also won the support of Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, who voted against Amendment 64 and strongly opposes marijuana legalization. Coffman cited his obligation to respect the will of the voters as his reason for co-sponsoring the bill.

Medical Acceptance Still Growing

Even as the feds ponder their moves in the West, winds of change keep blowing in the East. New York legislators intend to introduce a medical marijuana bill in January, hoping to make New York the 19th medical marijuana state after Massachusetts voters legalized it in November.

In New Jersey, the state's first medical marijuana dispensary opened Dec. 6 following months of debate between marijuana advocates and Gov. Chris Christie. Christie inherited the law's implementation from the previous administration and complained that it was too lax to ward off federal intervention.

The most recent skirmish between Christie and marijuana advocates was over sales tax. Christie's administration chose to impose a 7 percent tax on medical marijuana sales, even though other pharmaceutical sales in the state are tax-exempt.

"If you use medical marijuana as a pharmaceutical, then you shouldn't be taxed for it," New Jersey State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You don't punish a person who's terminally ill and needs the drug."

By Josh Crank


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