On Nov. 6, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana across the board for both medical and recreational use without a prescription. It’s not decriminalization; it’s complete legalization.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
Marijuana in Colorado is to be regulated much like alcohol. People won’t be able to smoke in public and can still be arrested for being high in public, much like one can be arrested for public drunkenness. Marijuana possession and consumption will be illegal for individuals under the age of 21. It will, however, be completely legal to sell, grow and possess in limited quantities. Sales of marijuana will be taxed by the state governments similarly to the taxation of tobacco. Marijuana will only be allowed to be sold in stores that sell nothing but marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia.
It will likely be a boon to the states’ economies due to an influx of tourists looking to smoke legally and the munchies that will almost certainly result from said smoking tourists. Take-out places, take note.
However, White Castle and Taco Bell may want to wait a while before opening new Colorado and Washington franchises. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and federal law is supposed to supersede state law. So this legislation ought to be meaningless, right? Denver, “The Mile-High City,” is not likely to get that much higher any time soon, is it?
The answers may surprise you.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper 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.” And it probably will be a complicated process, but perhaps it will be less complicated than one might think.
California, for instance, legalized medical marijuana in 1996, also in violation of federal law. State police and investigators simply stopped helping the Drug Enforcement Administration to bust medical marijuana dispensaries. With no cooperation from local authorities, the DEA has not been able to shut down dispensaries with any kind of consistency or effectiveness, though they will still occasionally raid a dispensary just for kicks. Apart from those occasional raids, they have largely just given up.
Something similar will likely happen in Colorado and Washington. The DEA cannot operate effectively without cooperation from state and local officials and police, and these state and local officials and police now have no reason to cooperate. So federal law will still technically be in force, but it will be unenforceable. The federal government could send in their own enforcers, of course, but such extreme measures as invading one of our own states doesn’t seem proportional to stopping a couple stoners from spending the night smoking weed and having revolutionary thoughts about cats. Colorado and Washington will probably end up like California, subject to occasional random DEA raids that have no real effectiveness.
The legalization measures in Colorado and Washington are an amazing step forward for progressive legislation in this country. Legislation like this would have been completely unthinkable even five years ago. However, the federal government continues to oppose marijuana legalization, so the average marijuana user will not be safe from random DEA raids. Legalization at the federal level is the next step, but it may be quite a while before marijuana gains enough acceptance for any such federal legislation to pass.
Justin Roczniak is the Op-Ed editor of The Triangle. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org