Washington and Colorado have become the first states in the union to vote to legalize marijuana. In 2010, voters in California said no; Tuesday, voters in Oregon also said no. But “no” shakes no foundations. “Yes” does.
And “yes” is the right answer. Prohibition has failed. Licensing the growers and retailers will take marijuana out of the hands of criminal gangs and bring it into the open, where it can be regulated and taxed.
The resounding votes of “yes” on Washington’s Initiative 502 and Colorado’s Amendment 64 put several groups of politicians in an uncomfortable spot. Marijuana is prohibited under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Obama administration has looked the other way, at least much of the time, in the 17 states that passed laws treating marijuana like a prescription drug. But the Obama administration has never said it would look the other way at states that treated marijuana like alcoholic drinks.
In Washington and Colorado, that is what the people want. They have just said so, and federal authorities will have to decide how to respond.
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On the question of marijuana, people in Washington have been far ahead of their state officials, too. The people voted 59 percent for medical marijuana in 1998, well before their Legislature would have dared do such a thing. Now the voters have taken the next step, again before the Legislature.
A legalization bill did get a hearing in the Legislature in 2011, but it never came to the floor. If it had, it would have failed and if it had passed, Gov. Chris Gregoire would have vetoed it. Gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee both opposed Initiative 502 because of the conflict with the federal government. The people didn’t care. They voted for it.
The vote on Initiative 502 is a challenge to state political leaders to stand up to the federal government. In federal court, the states won’t have a strong position. But this is ultimately a political question, and the votes in Colorado and Washington have now made it an urgent one.