Governing magazine: State and local government news for America's leaders

Marijuana Legalized in Colorado and Washington

They're the first states to allow recreational use of the drug, setting up a potential showdown between state laws and federal prohibition.
by , | November 7, 2012

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

It’s official: Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, setting up a potential showdown with the federal government over the supremacy of federal law and calling prohibition altogether into question.

Colorado Amendment 64 currently leads, 54 percent to 44 percent, with most precincts reporting, and major news outlets have already called the race in its favor. Likewise, Washington Initiative 504 has a comfortable lead, 55 percent to 44 percent, with more than half of precincts reporting. Again, the major news outlets have projected the initiative will pass.

The results are a significant victory for marijuana advocates, who believe they are seeing a change in public opinion toward marijuana prohibition. Tuesday’s night was the first hard evidence that they’re right.

“Politicians have to bend to the will of their constituents,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a leading legalization advocacy group, told Governing earlier this year. “Marijuana is going to be legal, even if we have to stumble and bumble to get there.”

The drug will be regulated and taxed much like alcohol in both states. The Colorado amendment specifically sets aside the first $40 million that marijuana sales yield for public schools capital improvements. The official state analysis in Washington estimated that the initiative would bring up to $560 million in new tax revenue in its first year.

The real question looking forward, however, is how the newly reelected Obama administration reacts. The White House never commented on the state ballot initiatives, although the president’s advisers have said in the past that he does not support outright legalization. The administration has generally allowed state medical marijuana laws to operate, though there have been efforts to limit its commercialization, but the prospect of legalized recreational use raises new questions.

“You have a model for what the federal government might do in medical marijuana. They've used a lot of subtle techniques to crack down on medical marijuana programs.,” says Robert Mikos, a University of Vanderbilt professor who studies marijuana policy. “But I think it complicates matters for the federal government that you have two states passing this. Now you have to double your efforts.”

Elsewhere Tuesday night, Massachusetts became the 18th state (plus the District of Columbia) to authorize medical marijuana. The measure passed with 63 percent of the vote. It sets up a system of state-regulated dispensaries that will serve patients with a doctor’s referral.

It wasn’t all good news for marijuana advocates, however. Oregon’s Measure 80, which would have joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, lost handily: 55 percent to 45 percent. And Arkansas voters rejected a ballot question that would have established a medical marijuana system by a slim 51 percent to 49 percent margin.

Marijuana Laws

Eighteen states now have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. The map below show states allowing for marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes.

Please zoom out to view Alaska and Hawaii

Map Key
 
Medical marijuana legalized
 
Marijuana legalized for medical/recreational use
 
No laws legalizing marijuana

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