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The Justice Department has a big decision to make.
Parts of new laws in Colorado and Washington that legalize small amounts of recreational marijuana will take effect early next month. The Obama administration needs to choose whether it will sue to stop the legislation or let those states go their own way — even though the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, says the message he got from voters is unambiguous.
"Our voters want marijuana to be regulated, like alcohol," Hickenlooper said at a recent news conference. "That's what they clearly said."
Hickenlooper has talked with the U.S. attorney general, but he came away with little certainty about what the Justice Department will do. The same goes for Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, also a Democrat, who met with the deputy attorney general in the nation's capital last week.
Here's the problem: A federal law called the Controlled Substances Act still ranks marijuana as a dangerous and addictive drug, in the same class as heroin. That old law is rubbing against a new coalition of voters, particularly in Western states. In fact, on Election Day, more voters in Colorado and Washington cast their ballots for marijuana legalization than for President Obama.
Ryan Grim, who wrote a book on the drug, pointed that out to amused hosts on MSNBC.
"In fact, in Colorado, pot got 50,000 more votes than Obama, so you don't want to be on the wrong side of that," Grim said.
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says there's been a steady movement in that direction since the 1990s. "Marijuana is different than other social issues and other cultural issues because there are reasons that you might support reform that are very conservative," Greenberg says.
Greenberg worked for the marijuana initiative in Washington state, where she says 39 percent of Republican voters and 45 percent of seniors backed legalization.
"The most important reason that people cite is that they think the system's broken. It doesn't work," Greenberg says. "And that it would be better to regulate it and get the tax revenue and also allow law enforcement to concentrate on more violent ... crime."
John Walters, the national drug czar for President George W. Bush, asked Obama and the Justice Department to speak out against the marijuana ballot initiatives before the election, to no avail.
"I know there will be young people who get harmed by this — by the confusion, by the failure to take actions we could take that we know we need to take from past experience," Walters says. He is bothered by the response from the Justice Department — and worried about another trend, too.
"More teenagers are dependent on marijuana than alcohol today," Walters says. "More teenagers have been starting to smoke marijuana than smoking cigarettes."
But the legalization movement has attracted many more law-and-order voices, including retired judges, federal prosecutors and veteran police officers who lobbied on behalf of the new state laws.
One of them is former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper.
"You'd have to be awfully naive to think that the federal government is simply going to ignore these two major developments — two states passing legalization of marijuana for adults," Stamper says.
That leaves a few possibilities. One is a Justice Department lawsuit seeking to stop the state laws in their tracks, by arguing federal law trumps the state measures. Another is more enforcement of federal drug laws.
But Stamper says he doesn't think federal agents have enough resources to swoop into Washington and Colorado to crack down on marijuana offenses. That could argue for a third approach, Stamper says.
"What we're all hoping for, what we're essentially lobbying for, is for the federal government to view these two states as laboratories, as incubators of new ideas and better ideas for dealing with the country's challenge of regulating marijuana," he says.
Eighteen Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote the attorney general last week urging just that path. They said that "the tide of public opinion is changing, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures across the country."
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre says officials are reviewing the initiatives and that for now, nothing has changed.
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