Big Questions Surround Marijuana Legalization

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7min 08sec

When Colorado voters approved a measure legalizing the possession and sale of marijuana to all adults over 21, they opened up a Pandora’s box of concerns. CPR's Megan Verlee, in collaboration with the PBS NewsHour, has been looking into what comes next.

Watch Colo. Voters Legalize Pot, State Anxious Over Gov't Reaction on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The PBS NewsHour also put together a slideshow of marijuana laws around the nation.

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report as it aired on Colorado Public Radio]

Reporter Megan Verlee: While last week’s vote was historic, creating the most liberal marijuana policy in the world, it’s also fair to say that Coloradans already have a fair amount of experience with retail marijuana sales. The state currently has more than 500 medical marijuana dispensaries, places like Ganja Gourmet on South Broadway in Denver.

Steve Horwitz: "These are sodas, some are sodas, some are iced teas. We’re coming out with a coffee. We’re going to call it Gan-Java."

Reporter: Ganja Gourmet’s owner, Steve Horwitz, says he started seeing the impact of Amendment 64 almost as soon as the votes were counted last week.

Horwitz: "On Wednesday morning before, we open at 9, before 9 o'clock we probably have 20 calls. And then all day long the phone was ringing off the hook. They’re pot tourists. They want to come to Colorado and they want to do like they do in Amsterdam."

Reporter: But those would-be high-fliers probably shouldn’t start booking plane tickets yet. While Amendment 64 gives existing medical marijuana centers priority in switching over to recreational shops, Horwitz and others in the business aren’t rushing to sign up.

Horwitz: "Nothing is going to change until we see what the state comes up with, the regulations the state comes up with and see what the federal government says about the regulations the state comes up with."

Reporter: Amendment 64 puts Colorado’s constitution on a collision course with federal drug laws, which is why one of first things Governor John Hickenlooper did after the initiative passed was to set up a call with US Attorney General Eric Holder.

Governor John Hickenlooper: "He was mostly listening. He was trying to get what we thought might be issues, problems, how we were going to respond to one part or another... So he was more in a listening mode, just gathering information."

Reporter: But Hickenlooper and other officials aren’t just waiting on a federal response. They’re putting together a task force to research the best way to create a retail marijuana system, something the amendment requires the state to do by next summer. Despite opposing the measure, Hickenlooper says he won’t hinder it now.

Hickenlooper: "Well it's a democracy, right? In a democracy, when people vote for things that you may not agree with, if you're the elected leader, you've still got to implement them. So we're going to do that in the most responsible way we can, with every cautionary procedure that we can find, but in the state of Colorado, marijuana's going to be legal."

[sound of crowd cheering]

Reporter: On election night it was clear that victory came as a surprise even to some of the initiative’s strongest backers. Brian Vicente is with Sensible Colorado, one of the group behind Amendment 64.

Brian Vicente: "What we are interested in doing is establishing Colorado as a model for effective adult marijuana sales. We want to prove to the state and to the world that we can tax these sales, take them off the street corner."

Sam Kamin: "What it seems like the marijuana law reform folks are doing is not win one big fight but win lots of little ones."

Reporter: Sam Kamin is a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver. He says drug reform groups are waging a war of attrition, similar to the state-by-state strategy of gay marriage proponents.

Kamin: "One of the ideas of federalism is states as laboratories of ideas. That we find out what good policy is by trying it in some places, not all places."

Reporter: Some in Colorado’s Congressional delegation are trying to enable this patchwork approach. Democratic Representative Diana DeGette wants to amend the controlled substances act to give state-level marijuana laws preemption over federal policy.

Kamin: "That would give us this sort of quilt of states that if you want the federal government to come in and enforce marijuana laws, we'll have them in. If you want to keep them out, you can keep them out through state law. We'll see what kind of traction that gets."

Reporter: Or the federal government could chose to circle the wagons. The drug enforcement administration could raid any store that dares to open. The Justice Department could sue to invalidate Colorado’s amendment, as it tried to do with Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Legalization backer Brian Vicente says his side is ready for that.

Vicente: "We have attorneys that have worked on this for years, including myself, and we will be prepared to litigate this on behalf of Colorado voters if needed."

Reporter: Vicente is hopeful though that the federal government will hold off and allow Colorado to build on its existing medical marijuana regulations for a new recreational retail system.

Vicente: "They have a very strict level of oversight which we call seed-to-sale tracking, so there are cameras following the movements of these plants from seed to sale and ultimately then they go to the consumer. We really have found that this system has worked quite well."

Reporter: Police Commander Jerry Peters of the North Metro Task Force has a very different view of how regulations are working.

Commander Jerry Peters: "We're touted across the United States as 'Colorado's got it figured out,' and we've regulated medical marijuana. We have done everything but regulate medical marijuana. We have diverted it, we have exploited it, we have done everything that you could possibly do, criminally, rather than actually look at it and regulate it."

Reporter: Peters says his officers in Denver’s northern suburbs average five to six marijuana investigations a week and even the vast majority of medical grow sites they go to are out of compliance. Full legalization, he says, will just make that worse.

Peters: "Guaranteed that this will increase cartel activity in the state of Colorado. The reason for that is would you rather smuggle marijuana across the border or would you rather grow it here legally and sell it?"

Reporter: In addition to potential criminal problems, Peters worries about legalization’s social cost.

Peters: "You're going to see youth use rise dramatically. You're going to see people driving under the influence of marijuana dramatically increase."

Reporter: Colorado officials are developing what Governor Hickenlooper calls a 'sharp-edged' public information campaign to warn about the dangers of marijuana. But in the end, the Governor sees legalization as a result demographic change, with Colorado’s recent influx of younger, more liberal residents.

Hickenlooper: "The state is a place that has always been for many years on the cutting edge of a lot of youth oriented issues, right? And this is part of what you get from that youth component that maybe wouldn't be your first choice to have happen in your state. But I don't think it's going to do long term damage."

Reporter: And back on South Broadway in Denver, dispensary owner Horwitz is convinced that now that voters have spoken, legalized recreational marijuana sales are inevitable.

Horwitz: "It's like the cat's out of the bag. I don't think you could put it back in right now... I think it will be much, much bigger than the people that Amendment 64 staff were even thinking."

Reporter: Still, he, like everyone else in the state, will be watching closely to see how the federal government responds.