There’s a political calculus for the president, or any other politician, in all of this.
Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are more supportive of legalizing marijuana, as are people in the West, where the libertarian streak runs strong. In Colorado, for example, last November more people voted for legalized pot (55 percent) than voted for Obama (51 percent), which could help explain why the president was silent on marijuana before the election.
“We’re going to get a cultural divide here pretty quickly,” says Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster based in Boise, Idaho, who predicts Obama will duck the issue as long as possible.
Despite increasing public acceptance of marijuana, and growing interest in its potential therapeutic uses, politicians know there are complications that could come with commercializing an addictive substance, some of them already evident in medical marijuana states. Opponents of pot are particularly worried that legalization will result in increased adolescent use as young people’s estimations of the drug’s dangers decline.
“There’s no real win on this from a political perspective,” says Sabet. “Do you want to be the president that stops a popular cause, especially a cause that’s popular within your own party? Or do you want to be the president that enables youth drug use that will have ramifications down the road?”
Marijuana legalization advocates offer politicians a rosier scenario, in which legitimate pot businesses eager to keep their operating licenses make sure not to sell to minors.
“Having a regulated system is the only way to ensure that we’re not ceding control of this popular substance to the criminal market and to black marketeers,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group for legal pot businesses in the U.S.
See Change Research, which analyzes the marijuana business, has estimated the national market for medical marijuana alone at $1.7 billion for 2011 and has projected it could reach $8.9 billion in five years. Overall, marijuana users spend tens of billions of dollars a year on pot, experts believe.
Ultimately, marijuana advocates say, it’s Congress that needs to budge, aligning federal laws with those of states moving to legalization. But that doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.
The administration appears uncertain how to proceed.
“The executive branch is in a pickle,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said at a recent news conference outside the Capitol with pot growers visiting town to lobby for changes. “Twenty-one states have a different view of the use of marijuana than the laws on the books for the federal government.”
While the federal government hunkers down, Colorado and Washington state are moving forward on their own.
Colorado’s governor in May signed a set of bills to regulate legal use of the drug, and the state’s November ballot will ask voters to approve special sales and excise taxes on pot. In Washington state, the Liquor Control Board is drawing up rules covering everything from how plants will be grown to how many stores will be allowed. It expects to issue licenses for growers and processors in December, and impose 25 percent taxes three times over — when pot is grown, processed and sold to consumers.
“What we’re beginning to see is the unraveling of the criminal approach to marijuana policy,” says Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. But, Lynch adds, “the next few years are going to be messy. There are going to be policy battles” as states work to bring a black market industry into the sunshine, and Washington wrestles with how to respond.
Already, a federal judge has struck down a Colorado requirement that pot magazines such as High Times be kept behind store counters, like pornography.
Marijuana advocates in Washington state, where officials have projected the legal pot market could bring the state a half-billion a year in revenue, are complaining that state regulators are still banning sales of hash or hash oil, a marijuana extract.
Pot growers in medical marijuana states are chafing at federal laws that deny them access to the banking system, tax deductions and other opportunities that other businesses take for granted. Many dispensaries are forced to operate on a cash-only basis, which can be an invitation to organized crime.
It’s already legal for adults in Colorado and Washington to light up at will, as long as they do so in private.
That creates all kinds of new challenges for law enforcement.
Pat Slack, a commander with the Snohomish County Regional Drug Taskforce in Washington state, said local police are receiving calls about smokers flouting regulations against lighting up in public. In at least one instance, Slack said, that included a complaint about a smoker whose haze was wafting over a backyard fence and into the middle of a child’s birthday party. But with many other problems confronting local officers, scofflaws are largely being ignored.
“There’s not much we can do to help,” Slack says. “A lot of people have to get accustomed to what the change is.”
In Colorado, Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Taskforce, takes a tougher stance on his state’s decision to legalize pot.
“This is against the law, I don’t care what Colorado says,” Gorman said. “It puts us in a position, where you book a guy or gal and they have marijuana, do you give it back? Do you destroy it? What in effect I am doing by giving it back is I am committing a felony. If the court orders me to return it, the court is giving me an illegal order.”
More than 30 pot growers and distributors, going all-out to present a buttoned-down image in suits and sensible pumps rather than ponytails and weed T-shirts, spent two days on Capitol Hill in June lobbying for equal treatment under tax and banking laws and seeking an end to federal property seizures.
“It’s truly unfortunate that the Justice Department can’t find a way to respect the will of the people,” says Sean Luse of the 13-year-old Berkeley Patients Group in California, a multimillion-dollar pot collective whose landlord is facing the threat of property forfeiture.