Election 2012: Marijuana Now Legal in Colorado, Washington

But "don't break out the Cheetos"--the feds could intervene

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

DENVER & SEATTLE -- Last Tuesday, Colorado and Washington became the first states to outright legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana: Both Colorado's Amendment 64 and Washington's Initiative 502 passed with a respective 54% and 55% of voters in both states casting yes ballots on the pro-pot measures. A similar measure in Oregon failed by 54%.

Officially, both states will now allow adults age 21 and up to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana without requiring a medical prescription; however, as Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper warned citizens during Tuesday night's victory, this vote was just the first step in a long road to true legalization. Or as Hickenlooper said in a press statement, "don't break out the Cheetos or the Goldfish too quickly."

Perhaps Hickenlooper was referring to the fact that before people can actually go buy marijuana for recreational uses, Colorado and Washington state officials must tackle the daunting process of writing the rules, tax codes and other regulations necessary to determine which retailers may be licensed to sell marijuana. Before these rules are written, it's impossible to know whether existing retailers such as c-stores would be eligible to sell marijuana or if only state-run operations will be permitted.

It's also possible Hickenlooper was referring to the elephant in the room: the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I prohibited substance on the federal level. While the federal government has notably targeted California, Montana and other states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, it is unclear how it will respond to Colorado and Washington's latest laws.

Hickenlooper opposed the ballot measure and has downplayed the likelihood of a commercial marijuana market materializing in Colorado. "If it's still illegal under federal law, I can't imagine that 7-Eleven is ever going to sell it," he told the Associated Press.

The U.S. Department of Justice is still reviewing the new laws: The New York Times reported that a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesperson declined to comment on how the agency will handle Colorado and Washington, but noted that the agency's enforcement of federal drug laws "remains unchanged."

Click here to view "The DEA Position on Marijuana" report.

Still, those familiar with how law enforcement operates in Colorado and Washington are cautiously optimistic that the feds will let them be.

"I don't see DEA agents sweeping into Colorado and Washington and enforcing drug laws that were previously enforced by local agencies," Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and Initiative 502 supporter, told the newspaper. "It would be extremely poor politics. The will of the people has been expressed."

It's also worth noting that the federal government has generally stayed out of Colorado since the state legalized medical marijuana 12 years ago.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and Amendment 64 advocate said that he believes it will be a smooth transition for the already pot-friendly state: "Coloradans are accustomed to having this stuff above ground, supervised by state authorities and having it regulated," he told the Times.

Regardless of how the federal government responds, Tuesday's results represent a historic day--one that could be a turning point not only in marijuana legalization, but in how tobacco retailers operate.