Constitution Daily

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More states ponder legal marijuana as feds loom

November 27, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


The battle over the legal recreational use of marijuana heads to several more states, as officials in Colorado and Washington wait to see how the federal government will react to their new pro-pot laws.


Source: United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

For now, it seems like the next legalization efforts will be focused on New England.


But the issue over legalized pot has crept into relations between the United States and Mexico.


Voters in Washington state and Colorado approved referendums in November that would allow citizens to use small amounts of marijuana, sold by the state, under approved conditions.


The fight over legalized pot seems headed for a court showdown and touches on several constitutional issues.


The federal government has selectively enforced its rights under the Controlled Substances Act to bust up medical marijuana facilities in the 17 states that have legalized medical marijuana.


But the widespread enforcement of national marijuana laws is quite problematic financially for the federal government if it has to staff law enforcement efforts within Colorado and Washington.


Analysis: Prohibition then and now


Supporters of legalized marijuana see the debate as a states’ rights issue and a continuation of expensive enforcement programs that infringe on personal rights.


Rhode Island and Maine seem to be the next states where pro-marijuana forces will seek referendums about the legalization of recreational use.


In Rhode Island, a new law goes into effect in April 2013 that eliminates criminal charges for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana and replaces them with a $150 civil fine.


Likewise in Maine, a 2009 law makes the possession of marijuana, up to 2 ½ ounces, punishable by a civil fine, ranging from $350 to $1,000.


Lawmakers in both states plan to introduce bills, modeled on the laws in Colorado and Washington, to seek the legal recreational use of marijuana.


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Montana, Vermont, and Massachusetts are also on the target list for The Marijuana Policy Project, a lobby group for the pro-marijuana effort. And there is an effort under way in New York state, despite the objections of Governor Andrew Cuomo.


Montana voters actually restricted medical marijuana use in November, but pot advocates plan to try for a state constitutional referendum on recreational use in 2014.


Massachusetts has decriminalization laws and it legalized medical marijuana, but a proposed recreational law never made progress in 2012.


Vermont’s governor won re-election in 2012 after he supported decriminalization laws, but no legalization efforts seem to be under way so far.


California and Oregon voters have rejected referendums to legalize pot, but the issue may make it back to a vote in California in 2014 or 2016. There are also concerns in Oregon about losing tourism revenue to neighboring Washington state.


The newspaper The Oregonian recently advocated for legal pot as a way to keep revenue in the state.


To be sure, other states have decriminalization laws, but Maine and Rhode Island seem to be the next target states for legalizing recreational marijuana.


Rhode Island Representative Edith Ajello said after the votes in Washington and Colorado that her state would see $30 million in savings and revenue by legalizing pot.


“Our prohibition has failed,’’ she said. ‘‘I think legalizing and taxing it, just as we did to alcohol, is the way to do it.’’


Ajello led two past failed efforts to get pot legalized in Rhode Island.


The supporters of legalized pot has focused on branding their campaign as a fight against “Marijuana Prohibition,” equating it to the massively unpopular ban on alcohol sales, transportation, and manufacturing in the 1920s and early 1930s.


NORML, the national group that lobbies for legalized marijuana, has a current online ad campaign that features vintage pictures of Jazz Age gangsters, with a tag line that says, “Remember Prohibition: It Still Doesn’t Work.”


While the Justice Department has delayed any detailed public reaction to the referendums in Colorado and Washington, President Barack Obama and his new counterpart in Mexico, President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, were discussing drug enforcement efforts on Tuesday as Peña visited Washington.


Peña told TIME magazine, in interview excerpts released in advance, that the developments in Colorado and Washington may change relations between the United States and its Latin American neighbors.


“It creates certain distortions and incongruences, since [state legalization] is in conflict with the federal government there,” he says. “That will impact how Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere respond.”


Peña isn’t personally in favor of marijuana legalization, but he recognizes that some countries may question the U.S. resolve in the drug war if recreational marijuana is legal in at least two states.


“I am in favor of a hemispheric debate on the effectiveness of the drug-war route we’ve been on,” he said.


Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.


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