DENVER — First came marijuana as medicine. Now comes legal pot for the people.
Those who have argued for decades that legalizing and taxing weed would be better than a costly, failed U.S. drug war have their chance to prove it, as Colorado and Washington became the first states to allow pot for recreational use.
While the measures earned support from broad swaths of the electorate in both states Tuesday, they are likely to face resistance from federal drug warriors. As of Wednesday, authorities did not say whether they would challenge the new laws.
Pot advocates say a fight is exactly what they want.
“I think we are at a tipping point on marijuana policy,” said Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado’s marijuana measure. “We are going to see whether marijuana prohibition survives, or whether we should try a new and more sensible approach.”
Soon after the measures passed, cheering people poured out of bars in Denver, the tangy scent of pot filling the air, and others in Seattle lit up in celebration.
Authorities in Colorado, however, urged caution. “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” said Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed the measure.
As the initial celebration dies down and the process to implement the laws progresses over the next year, other states and countries will be watching to see if the measures can both help reduce money going to drug cartels and raise it for governments.
Governments in Latin America where drugs are produced for the U.S. market were largely quiet about the measures, but the main adviser to Mexico’s president-elect said the new laws will force the U.S. and his country to reassess how they fight cross-border pot smuggling.
Analysts said that there would likely be an impact on cartels in Mexico that send pot to the U.S., but differed on how soon and how much.
Both measures call for the drug to be heavily taxed, with the profits headed to state coffers. Colorado would devote the potential tax revenue first to school construction, while Washington’s sends pot taxes to an array of health programs.
Estimates vary widely on how much they would raise. Colorado officials anticipate somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year. Washington analysts estimated legal pot could produce nearly $2 billion over five years.
Both state estimates came with big caveats: The current illegal marijuana market is hard to gauge and any revenue would be contingent upon federal authorities allowing commercial pot sales in the first place, something that is very much still in question.
Both measures remove criminal penalties for adults over 21 possessing small amounts of the drug — the boldest rejection of pot prohibition laws passed across the country in the 1930s.
Pot has come a long way since. In the 1960s, it was a counterculture fixture. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. Twenty-five years later, California approved medical marijuana. Now, 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow it.
Meanwhile, many more cities either took pot possession crimes off the books or directed officers to make marijuana arrests a low priority.
On Tuesday night, broad sections of the electorate in Colorado and Washington backed the measures, some because they thought the drug war had failed and others because they viewed potential revenue as a boon for their states in lean times. A similar measure in Oregon failed.
“People think little old ladies with glaucoma should be able to use marijuana. This is different. This is a step further than anything we have seen to date,” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who has studied the history of pot prohibition.
The Justice Department says it is evaluating the measures. When California was considering legalization in 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder said it would be a “significant impediment” to joint federal and local efforts to combat drug traffickers.
Federal agents have cracked down on medical pot dispensaries in states where it is legal, including California and Washington. Individual pot users may not be immediately impacted, as authorities have long focused on dismantling trafficking operations.
Peter Bensinger, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1976 to 1981, and other former DEA heads urged Holder to make more noise this year about the pot votes. Colorado was a critical state for President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Now, he said, “I can’t see the Justice Department doing anything other than enforce the law. There’s no other out.”
Brian Smith of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which will implement the new law, said officials are waiting anxiously to find out what federal law enforcement authorities plan to do. “They have been silent,” Smith said.
Both states will have about a year to come up with rules for their legal pot systems.
In Mexico, which produces much of the pot that gets into the U.S. and where cartels and the government are embroiled in a yearslong deadly battle, the man in charge of Enrique Pena Nieto’s presidential transition said the administration opposed legalization.
“These important modifications change somewhat the rules of the games in the relationship with the United States,” Luis Videgaray told Radio Formula.
A former high-ranking official in the country’s internal intelligence service who has studied the potential effects of legalization said he was optimistic that the measures would damage the cartels, possibly cutting profits from $6 billion to $4.6 billion.
Alejandro Hope, now an analyst at the think tank Mexican Competitiveness Institute, said among the complicating factors could be whether a strong U.S. crackdown on legal pot could negate all but the smallest effects on the cartels.
In Seattle, John Davis, a medical marijuana provider, called passage of the state’s measure “a significant movement in the right direction.” But he said he expected some confrontation with federal authorities.
“This law does not prevent conflicts,” he said, adding that its passage “will highlight the necessity to find some kind of resolution between state and federal laws.”