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Reefer Breakthrough: What Happens Next?

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 21, 2012

Reefer Breakthrough: What Happens Next?

The air was cold enough under the Space Needle just after midnight on Dec. 6 that the collected breath of the crowd turned to steam in the air. But that wasn't the only thing sending plumes skyward: It was the day that Washington's Initiative 502, the successful ballot referendum to legalize, tax, and regulate recreational use of marijuana by adults, officially became law. Under I-502, smoking pot in public is still illegal, but that didn't stop those gathered in the center city for the so-called "stash mob," and the police were nonchalant about the whole thing, instructed by higher-ups to only issue verbal warnings.

Indeed, the Seattle Police Department has embraced legal marijuana with humor. On Nov. 9, a few days after the historic vote, SPD spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee posted to the department's blog a cheeky Q&A on the issue titled "Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use In Seattle." The law allows the state a year to develop a licensing system for marijuana production and sale; in the meantime, Spangenthal-Lee offered a quick guide for tokers. Will police be able to smoke pot? "As of right now, no. This is still a very complicated issue," he wrote. "SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?" reads another question. The answer: "No." At the bottom of the page, Spangen­thal-Lee added a YouTube clip from Lord of the Rings. "It's the finest weed in the valley," Gandalf says in the short movie clip. "Gandalf," Bilbo Baggins later replies, "This will be a night to remember."

The historic votes of Nov. 6 – in Washington and in Colorado, where voters similarly endorsed an end to pot prohibition – will indeed be remembered, and debated, for some time.

But what happens next?

No one is certain how things will go in either state, while under federal law, the sale, possession, and use of marijuana remains illegal. Does that mean there's an inevitable clash on the horizon? Rob Kampia, co-founder and executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which essentially bankrolled the Colorado initiative, has another idea. Might the feds simply maintain a hands-off approach – under the guise of "reviewing" the state laws in question – and allow the legalization, regulation, and taxation of pot into the above-ground economy simply take shape and take hold? If the American people have anything to say about it, the answer is yes. According to a recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, 54% of adults said they personally believe in legalizing pot; 66% said they expect pot will be legal across the U.S. within the next 10 years.

"The writing is on the wall," wrote Mason Tvert, founder of Safer Alternatives For Enjoyable Recreation, which advocates for marijuana to be regulated like alcohol, in a recent email to the Chronicle. "It's simply a matter of how long it will take for our elected officials to catch up with the public." More supporters for ending prohibition are emerging in Congress, he noted, and they're signing on to a pending bill that would do just that.

Upon passage in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper immediately contacted the U.S. Department of Justice, inquiring about what the feds intend to do now, but the DOJ has not yet provided any "concrete" response, Tvert noted. Indeed, Kampia says that no answer is a fine answer: "I'd like them to keep reviewing it for at least another four years. We want them to do nothing. ... [and] it becomes almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle."

Hickenlooper is assembling a task force that will study the issue and provide recommendations to the Legislature on devising a regulatory system. Movement on that is expected in the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 9, 2013. Though Hickenlooper wasn't a supporter of the legalization campaign, he has acted quickly to enforce the voters' will. He officially proclaimed pot legal on Dec. 10, and he has already assembled the 24-member task force. "The Task Force shall respect the will of the voters of Colorado and shall not engage in a debate of the merits of marijuana legalization," reads an executive order. Chief on the task force to-do list: "reconcile Colorado and federal laws such that the new laws and regulations do not subject Colorado state and local governments and state and local government employees to prosecution by the federal government," according to a press release. The task force held its first meeting Dec. 17.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the DOJ would be announcing a new policy "relatively soon," and in an interview aired Dec. 14, President Barack Obama told ABC's Barbara Walters, "We've got bigger fish to fry," adding, "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

As in Colorado, officials in Washington state also reached out to the DOJ in the wake of Election Day, and they're also still waiting for an answer. Meanwhile, the state's Liquor Control Board must devise a system that "establishes precedent for growing, processing, retailing and possessing marijuana," reads a board statement. "Essentially, a system will be built from the ground up." The new law gives the board until Dec. 1, 2013 for the task; the board expects it will take the full year to come up with the new regulation scheme.

Meanwhile, pot smoking in both states is legal, as is possession of up to an ounce of the drug (though until the regulation framework is in place, it still isn't legal to buy pot, an odd contradiction). To supporters in both states – and to drug-law reformers across the country – the electoral successes were a long time coming, and they represent the beginning of the end of the war on drugs as we now know it. At least that's the hope, former Seattle PD Chief Norm Stamper said during a November press conference hosted by the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "We hope, and believe, that things will change."

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