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Obama's Pot Problem

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In 2005, at age 22, Tvert founded Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) to prompt a public conversation about the relative dangers of pot and booze. "We're punishing adults for making the rational, safer decision to use marijuana rather than alcohol, if that's what they prefer," says Tvert. "We're driving people to drink." That same year, fueled by support on college campuses, SAFER launched a ballot initiative to make Denver the world's first city to remove all criminal penalties for possession of marijuana by adults. Tvert cheekily branded then-mayor and now Colorado governor John Hickenlooper a "drug dealer" for owning a brew pub. The shoestring campaign, Tvert says, was only intended to raise awareness. "We just happened to win."

This year, Tvert and other drug reformers drew an even more explicit link between the two recreational drugs, naming their ballot initiative the "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012." Instead of simply urging people to vote against prohibition, the measure gave Coloradans a concrete reason to vote for legalization: Taxing pot would provide more money for schools, while freeing up cops from senseless pot busts would enable them to go after real criminals. "The public does not like marijuana," explains Brian Vicente, a Denver attorney who co-wrote the law. "What they like is community safety, tax revenue and better use of law enforcement."

Equally important to winning over mainstream voters was the plan to treat pot like alcohol. While the feds continue to view marijuana as contraband to be ferreted out by drug dogs and SWAT teams, Colorado and Washington will now entrust pot to the same regulators who keep tabs on Jameson and Jägermeister. The new laws charge the Washington State Liquor Control Board and the Colorado Department of Revenue – which already oversees medical marijuana – with issuing licenses for recreational marijuana to be sold in private, stand-alone stores. The Colorado law also gives local communities the right to prohibit commercial pot sales, much like a few "dry" counties across the country still ban liquor sales. "These will be specifically licensed marijuana retail stores," says Tvert. "It's not going to be popping up at Walmart. This is not going to force a marijuana store into a community that does not want it."

10 Marijuana Myths and Facts

The legalization campaign in Colorado was a grassroots, low-budget affair that triumphed in the face of strong opposition from Gov. Hickenlooper and the Denver Chamber of Commerce. The reform effort in Washington, by contrast, received more than half its $6.2 million in funding from billionaire drug reformers Peter Lewis and George Soros – and enjoyed mainstream support. The public face for legalization was Rick Steves, the avuncular PBS travel journalist – and dedicated pothead – who chipped in $450,000 to the cause. In Seattle, the mayor, city attorney and every member of the city council supported the measure. Unlike past efforts to turn back pot prohibition at the ballot box, which saw public support crater at the 11th hour, support for the measures in Colorado and Washington actually increased through Election Day: Both laws passed by at least 10 points. In Colorado, marijuana proved more popular than the president, trumping Obama's winning tally by more than 50,000 votes.

Regardless of how the federal government responds to the initiatives, many of their greatest benefits have already taken hold. In November, more than 200 Washington residents who had been charged with pot possession saw their cases dropped even before the new law went into effect. "There is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month," said Seattle prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Local police are now free to focus their resources on crimes of violence, and cops can no longer use the pretext of smelling dope as a license for unwarranted searches. "That gets us into so many cars and pockets and homes – illegally, inappropriately," says Neill Franklin, a retired narcotics officer who now directs Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "That ends in Colorado and Washington – it ends."

A hilarious FAQ called "Marijwhatnow?" – issued by the Seattle police department – underscores the official shift in tactics:

Q: What happens if I get pulled over and I'm sober, but an officer or his K-9 buddy smells the ounce of Super Skunk I've got in my trunk? A: Each case stands on its own, but the smell of pot alone will not be reason to search a vehicle.

Despite the immediate benefits of the new laws, the question remains: What will the federal government do in response? Advocates of legalization are hoping the Obama administration will recognize that it's on the wrong side of history. "Everybody's predicting there's going to be a backlash, and that's a good bet," concedes Nadelmann. "But there's some reason to be optimistic that the feds won't jump – at least not right away."

The administration, he points out, has yet to make its intentions clear – and that, by itself, is a sign of progress. In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder strongly denounced California's bid to regulate and tax marijuana before voters even had a chance to weigh in at the polls. This year, by contrast, the administration said nothing about the legalization bids in Colorado and Washington – even after nine former heads of the DEA issued a public letter decrying the administration's silence as "a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives."

In addition, the provisions that directly flout the federal government's authority to regulate marijuana don't take effect right away – leaving time for state and federal authorities to negotiate a truce. In Colorado, the state isn't required to begin regulating and taxing pot until next July, while officials in Washington have until next December to unveil a regulatory plan. "There's no inherent need for a knee-jerk federal response," says Nadelmann.

Most important, the governors of both Colorado and Washington have vowed to respect the will of the voters – even though they personally opposed the new laws. Gov. Hickenlooper pledged that "we intend to follow through" with regulating and taxing marijuana. But he also sounded a note of caution to potheads. "Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug," he warned, "so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

If Obama were committed to drug reform – or simply to states' rights – he could immediately end DEA raids on those who grow and sell pot according to state law, and immediately order the Justice Department to make enforcement of federal marijuana laws the lowest priority of U.S. attorneys in states that choose to tax and regulate pot. He could also champion a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, that would give state marijuana regulation precedence over federal law – an approach that even anti-marijuana hard-liners have endorsed. As George W. Bush's former U.S. attorney for Colorado wrote in a post-election op-ed in the Denver Post: "Letting states 'opt out' of the Controlled Substances Act's prohibition against marijuana ought to be seriously considered."

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