State confronts haze of questions after voters make marijuana legal
When Colorado Attorney General John Suthers boarded a shuttle on downtown Denver’s free mall ride a day after Election Day on Wednesday, he noticed something unusual.
A woman was seated on a bench smoking a joint.
“I’m sure she woke up this morning and said, ‘Hey, marijuana’s legal,’” the Republican who opposed the passage of Amendment 64 said. “As everybody was staring at her, she was giving this defiant stare back.”
Thing is, it isn’t legal, at least not officially.
Even though the ballot measure to legalize marijuana passed with nearly 54 percent of the vote, it won’t be official until at least Dec. 6, when the Secretary of State’s Office certifies this year’s election. It is required to do that at least 30 days after a general election.
After that time, a Colorado resident over the age of 21 will be allowed to possess up to one ounce of the herb, marijuana accessories and up to six marijuana plants, though no more than three can be mature, flowering plants.
Suthers has called on the federal government to decide quickly what it will do if Colorado goes ahead and allows for the establishment of retail marijuana shops, as called for under the ballot measure.
But how the federal government will react to Colorado and Washington voters legalizing marijuana is unknown.
The Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office released a terse statement Wednesday that indicated little.
“The Department of Justice’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “In enacting the (act), Congress determined that marijuana is a schedule 1 controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time.”
Despite that uncertainty, Walsh’s office hasn’t been shy in going after medical marijuana dispensaries.
His office been active in recent months sending letters to medical marijuana dispensaries around the state that are operating too close to schools, threatening to file federal criminal charges if they don’t close or move.
Several have as a result, but Mason Tvert, head of the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado, isn’t worried Walsh or the Justice Department will go any further.
“The federal government’s largely respected our state’s highly regulated medical marijuana system,” Tvert said. “The only interference we’ve seen is with the letters. But we have hundreds of other (dispensaries) that have been operating in full public view, are tightly controlled and unproblematic. They’ve provided a lot of benefits, in fact.”
He added the federal government really can’t do anything because it has no say over a state’s removal of state criminal penalties, which essentially is what Amendment 64 did to small amounts of marijuana.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement is struggling with how it will enforce the new law.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, who opposed the measure, said he and other local law enforcement officials are discussing that, saying one of his chief concerns is over what irresponsible marijuana users will do.
“In order to be hopeful that our concerns and fears do not come true with the legalization of marijuana, you would have to believe that 100 percent of the people in this state that use marijuana will do so responsibly 100 percent of the time,” Hilkey said. “That’s an assumption that I remain very skeptical of.”
The next step is for the Colorado Legislature to enact a law regulating the marijuana stores and decide if it also wants to tack on a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale sales of the weed, which would have to be approved by voters in next year’s general election.
Amendment 64 calls for money from that excise tax to go toward school construction projects.
Under the amendment, those regulations are to be in place by July 1 with stores set to open as early as January 2014.
The measure, however, does allow local governments to pass ordinances banning such stores or place a measure before local voters do that, much as several in the state did in banning medical marijuana centers.
Staff writer Paul Shockley contributed to this report.