This week, the Colorado General Assembly put the finishing touches on legislation aimed at taxing and regulating the commercial distribution of marijuana for recreational use. The process has been haunted by the fear that the federal government will try to quash this momentous experiment in pharmacological tolerance -- a fear magnified by the Obama administration's continuing silence on the subject.
Six months after voters in Colorado and Washington made history by voting to legalize marijuana, Attorney General Eric Holder still has not said how the Justice Department plans to respond. But if the feds are smart, they will not just refrain from interfering, they will work together with state officials to minimize smuggling of newly legal marijuana to jurisdictions that continue to treat it as contraband. A federal crackdown can only make the situation worse -- for prohibitionists as well as consumers.
Shutting down state-licensed pot stores probably would not be very hard. A few well-placed letters threatening forfeiture and prosecution would do the trick for all but the bravest cannabis entrepreneurs. But what then?
Under Amendment 64, the Colorado initiative, people 21 or older already are allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, grow up to six plants for personal use and keep the produce of those plants (potentially a lot more than an ounce) on the premises where they are grown. It is also legal to transfer up to an ounce "without remuneration" and to "assist" others in growing and consuming marijuana.
Put those provisions together, and you have permission for various cooperative arrangements that can serve as alternative sources of marijuana should the feds stop pot stores from operating. The Denver Post reports that "an untold number" of cannabis collectives have formed in Colorado since Amendment 64 passed.
Washington's initiative, I-502, does not allow home cultivation. But UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, who is advising the Washington Liquor Control Board on how to regulate the cannabis industry, argues that collectives ostensibly organized to serve patients under that state's medical marijuana law could fill the supply gap if pot stores never open. It is also possible that Washington's legislature would respond to federal meddling by letting people grow marijuana for personal use, because otherwise there would be no legal source.