The ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington state were a step beyond the measures that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes in the District and 17 states, including Massachusetts, which passed such an initiative Tuesday.
Colorado Amendment 64 allows individuals 21 and older to buy up to an ounce of marijuana at retail stores that are regulated. Washington’s Initiative 502 is similar and allows adults 21 and older to buy up to an ounce of dried marijuana, or small amounts of marijuana-infused products.
In the run-up to the vote on the measures Tuesday, the Justice Department was unusually muted about the possible conflicts between federal and state laws should the initiatives pass, even as former DEA officials called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to publicly oppose them.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) on Wednesday signaled his awareness of those conflicts, cautioning voters that it would take time to deal with the implications of the initiative.
“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”
Hickenlooper’s office called the Justice Department on Wednesday to get guidance on how the state should proceed. Eric Brown, a spokesman for Hickenlooper, said that Holder is scheduled to speak directly to the governor Thursday or Friday.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) also indicated that she is uncertain about whether there will be a showdown with the federal government.
“The voters have decided to decriminalize marijuana possession and tax its sale and we will follow the will of the people,” Gregoire said in a statement. “We are entering uncharted waters and many questions lie ahead as we work to implement this law. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, we are unsure how the federal government will proceed.”
Gregoire said that the state’s Liquor Control Board will be responsible for establishing the licensing and inspection procedures for the new measure over the next year.
Colorado’s initiative will go into effect by Jan. 5, according to Brown. The state’s general assembly, which meets between January and May, must then pass legislation creating the regulatory framework for the new law. Under the measure, the state would begin accepting and processing license applications for sales by Oct. 1 and start issuing licenses by January 2014.