A federal showdown with Washington state over its newly realized marijuana law has gone up in smoke, as people puffed pot in public this week with no repercussions.
The blatant disregard of federal and local threats about using marijuana in public echoed public sentiments in 1933, as the nation saw the end of Prohibition on the horizon, and it started to party in its own way with alcohol.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration issued its first detailed statement on legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington, a development that conflicts with federal law.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan issued the following statement:
“The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither States nor the Executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6th in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Members of the public are also advised to remember that it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations, and courthouses.”
At the same time, Seattle issued a statement to its citizens, if they attempted attend a planned celebration at the city’s Space Needle at midnight on Wednesday, to take part in a large pot-smoking party in public.
"If you're smoking in plain public view, you're subject to a ticket," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said during a news conference. The fine in Washington for such an offense is $100.
Midnight came, dozens of pot smokers descended on the Space Needle, and a large cloud of smoke headed skyward. No arrests were made and no federal officials were at the scene. A bigger crowd was expected Thursday night.
Local police weren’t even at the midnight smoke-in, partly because the state hasn’t passed a law to detail the procedure for busting people for public pot smoking.
Federal officials already have the power to bust people for possessing marijuana, but not the budgetary funds to station agents in Colorado and Washington. In reality, while federal agents have shut down medical marijuana facilities in states, they haven't gone after people for the act of smoking marijuana.
Proponents of legalized marijuana have been waiting to see if Attorney General Eric Holder will file suit to block or repeal the marijuana laws in those two states.
One theory is that the Obama administration would be hesitant to block the pot law in Colorado, a key swing state in the recent presidential election.
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But in reality, Holder could be dealing with a complicated legal situation. The Obama administration has cracked down on 17 states, and the District of Columbia, for legalizing and distributing medical marijuana.
Colorado’s legal marijuana-use law goes into effect in January, which only puts more pressure on the Justice Department to act.
Both states plan to tax marijuana that is sold legally for personal consumption and distribute it using systems similar to liquor-control boards in other states.
Once that tax money is collected and the states make a sizable investment in the marijuana business, the legal battle with the feds will only get nastier if the Justice Department moves to block the two state laws.
Washington State Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith told CNN on Wednesday that his state needs a decision from the federal government as soon as possible.
"We don't want to go and spend serious resources only to have it stopped by the federal government," Smith said. "It would sure help Washington state if they weighed in and made clear their expectations."
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told CNN that he fully expects the Obama administration to file a lawsuit, which could drag on for years.