First came marijuana as medicine. Now comes legal pot for the people.
Those who have argued for decades that legalizing and taxing weed would be better than a costly, failed U.S. drug war have their chance to prove it, as Colorado and Washington became the first states to allow pot for recreational use.
Though the measures earned support from broad swaths of the electorate in both states Tuesday, they are likely to face resistance from federal drug warriors. As of Wednesday, authorities did not say whether they would challenge the new laws.
Pot advocates say a fight is exactly what they want.
“I think we are at a tipping point on marijuana policy,” said Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado’s marijuana measure. “We are going to see whether marijuana prohibition survives, or whether we should try a new and more-sensible approach.”
Soon after the measures passed, cheering people poured out of bars in Denver, the tangy scent of pot filling the air, and others in Seattle lit up in celebration.
Authorities in Colorado, however, urged caution. “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” said Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed the measure.
As the initial celebration dies down and the process to implement the laws progresses over the next year, other states and countries will be watching to see if the measures can both help reduce money going to drug cartels and raise it for governments.
Governments in Latin America where drugs are produced for the U.S. market largely were quiet about the measures, but the main adviser to Mexico’s president-elect said the new laws will force the U.S. and his country to reassess how they fight cross-border pot smuggling.
Analysts said that there likely would be an impact on cartels in Mexico that send pot to the U.S. but differed on how soon and how much.
Both measures call for the drug to be taxed heavily, with the profits headed to state coffers. Colorado would devote the potential tax revenue first to school construction, while Washington’s law sends pot taxes to an array of health programs.
Estimates vary widely on how much they would raise. Colorado officials anticipate somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year. Washington analysts estimated legal pot could produce nearly $2 billion over five years.
Both state estimates came with big caveats: The current illegal marijuana market is hard to gauge, and any revenue would be contingent upon federal authorities’ allowing commercial pot sales in the first place, something that is very much still in question.
Both measures remove criminal penalties for adults over 21 possessing small amounts of the drug — the boldest rejection of pot-prohibition laws passed across the country in the 1930s.
Pot has come a long way since. In the 1960s, it was a counterculture fixture. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. Twenty-five years later, California approved medical marijuana. Now, 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow it.
Meanwhile, many more cities either took pot possession crimes off the books or directed officers to make marijuana arrests a low priority.
On Tuesday night, broad sections of the electorate in Colorado and Washington backed the measures, some because they thought the drug war had failed and others because they viewed potential revenue as a boon for their states in lean times.