War on drugs: Beginning of the end?

Two states legalize marijuana in defiance of federal prohibition

By Natasha Lennard
November 7, 2012 8:42PM (UTC)
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(Stokkete via Shutterstock)

On Tuesday night both Colorado and Washington State legalized the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Meanwhile, Massachusetts approved the use of medical marijuana.

Once the election results are certified and rules for the sales and excise tax are put in place, marijuana in Colorado and Washington states will be sold, regulated and taxed -- much like alcohol in most parts of the country. Adults over 21-years-old will be permitted personal possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. In Colorado, individuals will be allowed to grow up to six plants, while in Washington "grow your own" will remain illegal. As Reuters noted Wednesday:


[The ballot outcomes] put both states in further conflict with the federal government, which classifies cannabis as an illegal narcotic. The U.S. Department of Justice reacted to the measure's passage in Colorado by saying its enforcement policies remain unchanged, adding: "We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time."

"Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly," quipped Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed the measure. He stressed that he nonetheless intended to "follow through" and support voters' legalization choice.

Although the Obama administration has stayed quiet on legalization ballot measures so far -- despite encouragement from former DEA officials to crack down -- there is early evidence of a coming state-federal showdown over the issue. As Matt Sledge noted at HuffPo, "On Sunday, a former senior adviser to the Obama administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy, Kevin Sabet, told NBC News that 'once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the Feds to shut it down.'"

In advance of Tuesday's vote, The Economist pointed out that the impact of even state-level legalization alone could be "profound" in Mexico, where 60,000 have been killed by organized crime during the past six years. Legalization, even in states like Washington where there is no huge drug market, would have a knock on effect in the U.S. market, which could undercut Mexico's traffickers. The Economist notes:


[The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness] estimates that Mexico’s traffickers would lose about $1.4 billion of their $2 billion revenues from marijuana. The effect on some groups would be severe: the Sinaloa “cartel” would lose up to half its total income... Legalization could, in short, deal a blow to Mexico’s traffickers of a magnitude that no current policy has got close to achieving.

And, as Salon has previously reported, research on the ruinous effects of marijuana arrests (which are consistently racially skewed) even in states where possession is decriminalized, presents another strong legalization argument. With two state mandates for legalization and a growing permissiveness nationwide towards marijuana, the federal government not only faces powerful arguments and good reasoning against the drug war, but codified political opposition too.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Colorado Drugs Election 2012 Marijuana Marijuana Legalization Mexico War On Drugs Washington