Legal Recreational Marijuana — What’s Next?

Washington and Colorado approved the recreational use of marijuana.

But green-lighting casual use doesn’t mean that residents can indulge with impunity.

In fact, smoking marijuana is still a federal offense, and the implications for law enforcement are as yet unclear.

Under federal statute, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, along with heroin and other hard-core drugs of abuse. The Obama administration hasn’t weighed in yet on whether it plans to challenge the voter initiatives that passed in Washington and Colorado.

Before jumping into what’s next on the horizon, here’s a brief summary of what happened in each of these two landmark states, the first to decriminalize recreational marijuana use.


Passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado in 2012 by 55% of the voters legalizes the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of up to six plants by adults 21 and over. This amendment goes into effect January 5, 2013. The state also has until October 2013 to complete the crafting of a system of regulations for commercial marijuana cultivation and sales.

In the weeks after the historic vote, marijuana activists suggested that the ballot win actually paved the way for “‘Amsterdam-style’ private coffee shops in which patrons will be able to smoke marijuana.”

In truth, the passage of Amendment 64 does nothing of the sort. The editorial goes on to say that the language in the Amendment repeatedly uses the term “licensed retail marijuana store.” The amendment further stipulates that “nothing in this section shall permit consumption that is committed openly and publicly or in a manner that endangers others.”

Washington state

After the polls closed on November 6, 2012, Washington became the second state in the United States to pass a proposition (known as Initiative 502) to legalize recreational use of marijuana by adults over the age of 21. The vote passed with 55%.

Beginning December 6, 2012, the Yes on 502 legalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Sales at state-licensed stores, however, are at least a year away. The Associated Press has reported that the Washington measure will establish a system of marijuana growers licensed by the state, as well as processors and stores that adults can visit and buy up to an ounce, and will initiate a blood-test limit for driving under the influence.

Press reports out of Seattle following the historic vote said that this legalization of recreational use of marijuana could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in marijuana taxes, reduce small-time arrests for pot possession and give supporters an opportunity to show whether decriminalization of marijuana is a viable strategy in the so-called war on drugs.

In fact, financial experts at the Seattle Times estimated that taxes from marijuana could raise up to two billion dollars in revenue over the next five years. The money would go toward education, healthcare, substance abuse prevention and basic government services.

Other states

Washington and Colorado weren’t the only two states with ballot initiatives on marijuana use. Here’s a rundown on what happened in four others:

  • Arkansas — Voters voted down a bill similar to the one in Massachusetts.
  • Massachusetts — Voters approved an initiative allowing people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
  • Montana — Voters in the Big Sky state approved a plan to revamp existing medical marijuana law, which originally passed in 2004 — to make it more restrictive. The restrictions were passed in 2011, but the vote this November upheld those restrictions.
  • Oregon — The ballot initiative to allow those over the age of 21 to use marijuana for any purpose failed to pass.

Seventeen states allow medical marijuana

As for the use of medical marijuana permitted under state law, the tally to-date is 17 states and the District of Columbia.

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

For more information, see the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States with medical marijuana laws generally have some form of patient registry. This may provide some protection against arrest for possession of up to a certain amount of marijuana for personal medicinal use. The exception is Maryland, whose statute only allows for defense against arrest and prosecution for possession of marijuana, but does not provide patients for any means of getting the drug.

Illinois considers marijuana bill — for the third time

The Chicago Tribune, noting that the Illinois House lawmakers may consider a marijuana bill allowing for medical use very shortly (the third time such a bill has been introduced), also says that a yes vote is just the beginning of the road Illinois has to take in paving the way for use of medical marijuana in the state.

The state would still need to establish its own production and distribution system for a substance that is against federal law.

Current legislation in Illinois calls for a three-year pilot program that is more restrictive in nature than the one in California, for example. In Illinois’ case, several dozen distinct medical conditions, including cancer, HIV, wasting syndrome, and multiple sclerosis, would be listed, although the Illinois Department of Public Health could add to that list in the future.

Under the current Illinois bill, patients would have to register with the state Department of Public Health, submitting written certification from their physician, before receiving their registry identification card. Also under the bill, employers would still be able to enforce zero-tolerance drug policies.

What happens next?

The green-lighting of marijuana across the country cannot be considered a sure thing. Although there appears to be considerable interest in cash-strapped states for ways to add to the coffers by passing legislation or putting up ballot initiatives to ease marijuana restrictions so that increased revenue can flow from taxing the sales of the drug, there are a host of issues still to be dealt with.

One of those problems is users driving under the influence. A recent federally-funded survey conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety found that one in seven weekend nighttime drivers was found to be under the influence of drugs. Of the 1,300 drivers stopped at checkpoints statewide who voluntarily submitted to a breath and/or saliva sample, 7.4% tested positive for marijuana, 14% for some type of drug, and 7.3% tested positive for alcohol.

Since this was the first such survey in California, state officials said it’s difficult to determine if there’s been an increase in impaired driving. But the results mirror a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2007 National Roadside Survey that found one in eight weekend nighttime drivers tested positive for an illicit drug.

A new law that takes effect January 1, 2013 allows law enforcement officers to file DUI arrests in different categories: alcohol or drugs. The law distinguishes the offenses of driving under the influence of alcohol, driving under the influence of drugs, and driving under the combined influence of alcohol and any drug.

With data that separates DUI arrests this way, state officials can apply for national grants to focus on more education. The idea is to target the message that driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or the combination of alcohol and any drug is dangerous behavior.

Just because someone has a medical marijuana card — or, in the case of Washington and Colorado, is allowed to use marijuana for recreational purposes — doesn’t mean it’s always safe to do so.

Addiction experts, researchers and others say that substances such as alcohol and marijuana kill brain cells, cause cancer, promote violence and increase car crashes — not to mention that they can be addictive.

Opinions and controversies

Some say that marijuana should be regulated much the same way cigarettes and alcohol are. That is, with taxes, age limits, and penalties for driving under the influence. In addition, there should still be educational programs such as D.A.R.E. targeted messages like the ones that California would like to promote and high school health classes all aimed at covering the dangers and risks of both legal and illegal drugs.

Look for more controversies surrounding any push for greater freedom over the use of pot. And, no matter how many states get on the green road, easing restrictions on marijuana use, consider that the federal government still has the clout and the authority to bring down the firm hand of the law on violators — be they citizens, marijuana stores, growers or others.

Bottom line: There’s still a long road ahead for recreational use of marijuana in both Washington or Colorado.

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