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Brendon Bosworth | Nov 08, 2012 06:00 AM

“Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.” That was the word from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s office Tuesday night in response to voters passing a ballot initiative legalizing pot sales for recreational use in the state. A similar initiative passed in Washington State, making these the first two states to opt for legalizing and taxing weed for non-medical use.

The passing of these initiatives is “precedent setting,” not only nationally but internationally too, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, since even countries like the Netherlands, famed for its Amsterdam “coffee shops,” where customers can puff on quality strains of weed unhindered, only tolerate sales instead of making them legal.

Weed leafBut the passing of the measures also usher in some sticky questions about how the federal government will respond to the new laws in these states. And the feds have not given out much information about whether the rulings will be challenged in courts. “We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time,” says a short statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado, which maintains that the Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal law (under which possession of marijuana is illegal, since it is a Schedule 1 drug).

When state and federal laws clash, federal law takes priority, so there is a chance the feds could sue the states in the Supreme Court to bar the initiatives from going through. The feds “will do whatever they can to interfere with marijuana legalization in any state,” Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard professor of economics and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told CNN.

However, it’s not clear that this would be a wise move politically, maintains St. Pierre. The lack of a clear response from the federal government as to how it will respond could speak to a newly adopted “modus operandi” that acknowledges the will of the voters, he says.

In the past, attempts to loosen up federal regulation of marijuana have failed. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration ruled that weed should not be reclassified for medical use, arguing in court that the drug “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” This, however, has not stopped 17 states from allowing dispensaries to sell medical marijuana (on Tuesday voters in Massachusetts made that state the 18th to do so).

Supporters of the marijuana legalization measures are confident the feds will cooperate, though. The Washington initiative is drafted so that on December 6 people over the age of 21 will be allowed to carry up to an ounce of marijuana. After that, there is a year-long rulemaking process regarding the specifics of marijuana growing, processing and sales in the state, which will allow the federal government time to consider how it will deal the new legislation, explains Tonia Winchester, outreach director for New Approach Washington, the group sponsoring the initiative.

“We are looking forward to, and really want to work with, the federal government to improve public safety and increase the respect for law enforcement that has been eroded under our prohibition policy, she says. “We are hopeful the conversation can be open and collaborative and they’ll work with us, not against us.”

In Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper wants to talk to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to clarify the federal response. “My sense is that it is unlikely the federal government is going to allow states one by one to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana,” he said Wednesday, but added that “You can't argue with the will of the voters.”

The Colorado initiative also nullifies legal penalties for holding up to an ounce of pot and allows Coloradons to grow six plants for personal use, while tasking the state with creating a system for regulating marijuana production and sales, with rules finalized by July 2013. As in Washington, stores selling weed would not be operating until early 2014.

With the passing of these measures, and lingering questions about potential state versus federal legal clashes, it seems the feds are under pressure to let pot users in Washington and Colorado know if they’ll be able to light up in peace come 2014.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image: marijuana leaf from Shutterstock.

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