Russell Hebets Nov. 9, 2012

Amendment 64 has passed in Colorado, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in our great state of Colorado. So are we ushering in an age of Cheech and Chong marathons at the multiplex? Is Tie-Dye going to be our new state color? Should we start honing our hackey-sack skills? Not so fast. As Governor Hickenlooper said is his official statement on the subject, “don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.” The passage of amendment 64 certainly forwarded the cause of marijuana legalization advocates but the future of marijuana in our state is far from clear.

There will certainly be some immediate, tangible difference once the vote is officially certified. First and foremost, marijuana possession of under 1 ounce will be decriminalized at the state level. This is great news for all recreational marijuana users but is specifically a significant win for minority communities where black and latinopopulations see marijuana arrests at 3 times the rate of white arrests for marijuana.

It is also quite “hazy” what the passage of amendment 64 will do to current marijuana laws in Colorado, and several questions can be raised. For example, where can you grow it- is the backyard ok? Who can sell it- what type of license is required? Will the current medical marijuana laws be affected in any way by the passage of 64? These questions do not have clear answers and lawmakers will have to come up with a legal structure that is practical and simple to enforce but that also promotes the clear wishes of the Colorado people who passed this amendment. Amendment 64 sets out a deadline of July 1st, 2013, to resolve most of these matters but whether this will be clear by then is anyone’s guess.

Our careful reader will have noticed the caveat that marijuana will be decriminalized “at the state level.” Thanks right folks, marijuana possession will still be illegal in Uncle Sam’s eyes. That said, it’s pretty unlikely that federal DEA agents will be breaking down the door of Tokin’ Tom’s house when he lights up at home after a long day at work. The federal government has largely ignored Colorado’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry, and is likely to do the same for individual marijuana users.

OK, so if the federal government is going to ignore us, we’re on the highway to getting high, right? Again, not so fast. Ignoring the medical marijuana industry is a far cry from allowing an entire retail system to produce and distribute a federally prohibited drug to the entire population over the age of 21. While individual federal arrests are unlikely, a federal lawsuit and injunction against retail marijuana shops is very likely. Anyone who thinks that the federal government doesn’t care about state infringement on federal law needs to look no farther than the federal government’s suit attempting to block Arizona’s immigration law.

Ultimately Colorado’s marijuana vote is one step toward what would need to be a national movement to change federal law. An analogy can be drawn between marijuana prohibition and Alcohol prohibition from 1920. Following prohibition’s enactment 10 states followed New York’s lead and legalized alcohol at the state level before any federal action was taken. By 1933 it was clear that there was a national trend toward legalization and prohibition was repealed. This is the hope of marijuana legalization advocates and this is end game for anyone who believes in the decriminalizationof marijuana.