DENVER–Coloradans may have voted to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults, but don’t fire up the Bob Marley albums just yet.
Marijuana is still an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and federal law still trumps state law. Colorado lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday that they need to discuss the passage of Amendment 64 with federal officials, starting with the Justice Department.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he hoped to speak with Attorney General Eric Holder this week. The Democratic governor opposed Amendment 64 during the election, but said Wednesday that he would respect the will of the voters.
“I think most people know I didn’t support the initiative, but you can’t argue with the will of the voters,” said Hickenlooper at a Wednesday press conference. “Voters were pretty clear about this. So in terms of the state, it’s decriminalized. We will not be prosecuting people on a state-law basis. Again, that’s the issue is the federal law.”
A second state, Washington, also voted to decriminalize recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older in Tuesday’s election.
“My sense on this is that it is unlikely the federal government is going to allow states one by one to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana, but I have not heard that from Eric Holder,” said Hickenlooper. “We’ll have to see what his opinion is on that.”
Attorney General John Suthers, who also opposed Amendment 64, issued a statement Wednesday saying he would also consult with federal officials.
“Despite my strongly held belief that the ‘legalization’ of marijuana on a state level is very bad public policy, voters can be assured that the Attorney General’s Office will move forward in assisting the pertinent executive branch agencies to implement this new provision in the Colorado Constitution,” said Suthers.
He called on the Justice Department “to make known its intentions regarding prosecution of activities sanctioned by Amendment 64 (particularly large wholesale grow operations) as soon as possible in order to assist state regulators and the citizens of Colorado in making decisions about the implementation of Amendment 64.”
Reuters reported Wednesday night that Kevin Sabet, a former Obama drug-czar adviser, predicted the ballot victory would be “short-lived.”
“They are facing an uphill battle with implementing this, in the face of . . . presidential opposition and in the face of federal enforcement opposition,” Sabet said.
The Justice Department issued a statement Wednesday emphasizing that federal anti-drug enforcement “remains unchanged.”
“We are reviewing the ballot initiatives and have no additional comment at this time,” said the statement.
The amendment calls for the General Assembly to establish a taxation and regulatory framework by July 1. The measure also directs the legislature to propose a 15 percent surtax on marijuana sales that would go before the voters as required by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.
The first $40 million raised would go toward a public-school construction fund, but Suthers noted that “such revenue is speculative and will not be forthcoming when Amendment 64 begins to be implemented.”
After the presidential race, Amendment 64 was the hottest post-election topic in the nation.
Officials at Major League Baseball and the National Football League told reporters that the measure would not change their anti-drug policies after several players sent out messages on Twitter cheering the vote.
Amendment 64 was approved by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. On election night, Hickenlooper issued what may be the most memorable press release of his career: “This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”