Legally Green: The Nation Is Watching Closely as Colorado and Washington Put New Pot Laws in Place

By Weiss, Suzanne | State Legislatures, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Legally Green: The Nation Is Watching Closely as Colorado and Washington Put New Pot Laws in Place


Weiss, Suzanne, State Legislatures


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Got pot? Colorado and Washington do. In the wake of last November's election, the two states face an enormous and once-unthinkable challenge. They must transform the marijuana black market into an above-ground, regulated and taxed commercial enterprise.

Ballot measures approved by voters in Colorado and Washington create the most permissive pot laws in the nation. They not only explicitly allow citizens to use cannabis for recreational purposes, but demand state involvement in establishing systems for the drug to be sold much like alcohol.

Officials in both states have a number of months to craft and enact a regulatory framework for commercial marijuana cultivation and distribution--provided the U.S. Justice Department does not block them from doing so.

The federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use, and thus it prohibits the possession, use, purchase, sale and/or cultivation of marijuana.

The federal government may choose to stymie implementation of the new laws, but it cannot make the two states recriminalize marijuana possession. And the states have no obligation to enforce federal marijuana laws. At press time, the U.S. Department of Justice was still reviewing the new state laws.

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"We have no model for how to deal with this," says Colorado Representative Frank McNulty (R), who served as House Speaker in the past two sessions. "Even when Prohibition was repealed, it involved a product that had previously been legal. In this case, we're really starting from square one."

In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper (D) has pledged to respect the wishes of voters despite his opposition to legalization. Shortly after the election, he appointed a 24-member task force comprising legislators, cabinet officials, civic leaders, employers, attorneys and marijuana advocates to work out a variety of policy, legal and procedural issues associated with establishing a commercial marijuana market. The new law includes language requiring the legislature to address some of those issues during the 2013 session, including:

* Amending current laws regarding the possession, sale, distribution or transfer of marijuana.

* Clarifying the impact of legalization on workplace drug policies.

* Establishing new regulations in areas ranging from product labeling to security requirements for wholesale and retail marijuana establishments.

* Deciding whether to set a standard for marijuana impairment while driving, similar to the blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving.

* Integrating the existing medical marijuana system into the new commercial market.

* Submitting a proposal to voters to impose a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales.

McNulty says he and a number of other legislators remain opposed to legalization, but that there likely will be "broad agreement" on implementing the major provisions of Amendment 64. The most contentious issue will be the provision requiring legislators to refer an excise tax proposal to the voters. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle question "whether we can be compelled to cast our vote a certain way," he says.

By contrast, Washington's voter-approved marijuana law leaves the legislative branch largely out of the loop, and gives the State Liquor Control Board responsibility for coming up with a system for licensing, regulating and taxing marijuana growers, processors and retail stores.

Washington Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler says he doesn't expect the issue of marijuana legalization to get much attention during the 2013 session.

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Legislative leaders of both parties "have committed ourselves to a narrowly focused agenda-jobs, education and the budget," Schoesler says. …

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