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Will 2014 Be a Groundbreaking Year for Marijuana Policy?

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by Publius
Posted November 26, 2013, 6:03 PM

Alex Kreit of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law comments at JURIST:

It has been a little over a year since voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana. If you will be spending your holidays in Seattle or Denver and want to legally purchase a cheer-inducing leafy green plant during the trip, however, you will have to make do with a Christmas tree. At least until January 1, 2014, when the first stores licensed to sell recreational marijuana are expected to open up shop in Colorado.

The delay is not a bug. It is a feature of the laws, both of which direct state agenciesÔthe Liquor Control Board in Washington State and the Department of Revenue in Colorado—to iron out the regulatory details of marijuana legalization. To understand why this is so, it is helpful to separate users from sellers.

In both Colorado and Washington, the legal protections for users took effect more or less immediately, making it legal for anyone over twenty one to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. (In Colorado, adults may also grow up to six plants and transfer marijuana between one another "without remuneration.") Although this aspect of legalization raises some practical and legal issues—the need to retrain drug sniffing dogs, for example—it is a relatively straightforward policy to put into effect. Making it legal for someone to possess marijuana is really as simple as striking a few provisions from the state's criminal code.

When it comes to supplying marijuana, by contrast, legalization is a much trickier issue. Both laws aim to treat marijuana like alcohol. And as anyone who has ever tried to get a liquor license can attest, the manufacture and sale of alcohol is heavily regulated. Rather than try to develop a comprehensive regulatory system in advance, the ballot initiatives' drafters decided to include loose guidelines for regulating marijuana production and sale and leave the details to the administrative process.

Colorado has already finalized its marijuana rules and Washington officials are not far behind in completing theirs.

This means that 2014 is going to be a truly groundbreaking year for marijuana policy in the US. Colorado and Washington voters may have passed legalization in 2012, but 2014 is when legalization will actually take effect. It will bring the first licensed manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of recreational marijuana in the US.

The new year will also pose the first real test for the Department of Justice (DOJ)'s approach to state marijuana legalization laws. In August, the DOJ announced that it does not plan to sue Washington and Colorado to block the new laws. The DOJ also released new prosecutorial guidance that indicates it may limit the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical purposes. . . .

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