Possession, manufacturing and distributing marijuana is still against federal law in the United States.
In Colorado, where voters approved legalizing pot by a 1,291,771 to 1,064,342 (55% to 45%) vote, Gov. John Hickenlooper warned citizens that it was a bit too early to "break out the Cheetos."
A Long, Complicated Process
Hickenlooper said the process of setting up the laws and regulations to tax and sell marijuana, much in the same way that alcohol is controlled, would be a long and complicated process.
"The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will," Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said. "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."
The process could be further complicated if federal authorities challenge in the courts each step along the way. In both Washington and Colorado, the measures call for weed to be sold only in state-licensed stores, where it will be heavily taxed.
A Court Battle Brews
Federal authorities could move to shut down these retail outlets in the same manner they have shut down dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is "legal." The feds will probably not get into the business of arresting individuals for possession, but they could easily target the state distribution system.
The day after the election, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that the federal policy of enforcement of the federal Controlled Substances Act "remains unchanged."
From a practical standpoint, however, it may be difficult for federal authorities to do anything to curtail the individual use of marijuana, especially in Colorado where, unlike Washington state, adults over 21 will be allowed to cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
A Matter of Public Safety
If local law enforcement is no longer going to arrest adults for possession of less than an ounce or for growing their own, it would be impractical for federal authorities to step into that role.
The reason that the federal authorities continue to enforce the law and President Obama has not supported legalization, is because the government's own research shows that marijuana is a drug that can have harmful effects and has the potential to be abused.
Therefore, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Chief Peter Bensinger indicated Wednesday that federal authorities will continue to fight the legalization of marijuana in the courts, if not in the streets, as a matter of public safety.
"You'll lose productivity, you'll have accidents on the highway, you'll have absenteeism, and you'll really have a much more weakened society if you have widespread use of marijuana," Bensinger told reporters.
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