Colorado legalizes pot, but will feds spoil the party?
November 7, 2012
DENVER – Marijuana for all adults has long been the goal of legalization backers in Colorado. They got their way when they added taxes and regulation to the mix.
On Tuesday, voters in the state handily supported marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation. Exit polls showed the measure was supported everywhere in the state – not just big cities – and by both genders.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who opposed the measure, quickly cautioned that marijuana use is still illegal under federal law. On Wednesday, he asked federal officials whether they plan to prosecute Coloradans who use marijuana.
John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, issued a brief statement saying the Justice Department was reviewing the measure.
Suthers said he would help state officials implement the new measure but repeated his belief that legalizing marijuana on the state level “is very bad public policy.”
The vote came just six years after Coloradans rejected legalizing pot in a 2006 vote. The difference? A plan to regulate the drug and keep it away from children, said the lead proponent of both measures, Mason Tvert.
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Even the 2012 measure’s name – the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol – underscored that marijuana would be legal, but limited.
“This was the time to bring up a well thought-out, viable system,” Tvert said.
The voter-approved amendment directs state lawmakers to tax the drug up to 15 percent, with the first $40 million going to school construction. Ads promoting the measure showed teachers and schools. One used the tag line: “Jobs for our people, money for schools. Who could ask for more?”
At several debates about marijuana, backers of amendment stressed that the drug would be tightly controlled.
“We will take it off the streets and (put it) behind the counter where responsible business owners will ask for IDs,” argued Betty Aldworth in one televised debate.
That selling point persuaded some voters, like Stacie Packard, a 42-year-old mother of two from the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge. She preaches to her children to stay away from drugs, but ultimately supported it because the first $40 million raised in taxes on pot would go to public schools.
“I guess it’s kind of a shame that it’s come to this,” she said about the education funding.
Though lawmakers must still agree on a pot tax, along with extensive regulations for commercial sales, officials said those would get done.
“It’s incumbent on the Legislature to honor the will of the people on that issue,” said Democratic state Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the presumptive incoming House speaker.
After approval by the Legislature, the pot tax would face final approval by voters.
Even if lawmakers and voters agree how to regulate and tax pot, however, significant questions remain about whether marijuana will truly be treated like alcohol. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and federal authorities have indicated no willingness to allow a state to experiment with pot outside of restricted medical uses.
Colorado’s governor gave a folksy prediction of the measure’s future.
“Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed the measure, said in a statement.