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Colorado leads, the nation follows when it comes to marijuana

Marijuana is legal in Colorado; the nation is beginning to follow its lead.
Marijuana is legal in Colorado; the nation is beginning to follow its lead.
Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2014, marijuana became legal in Colorado. In 2012 the voters passes an amendment legalizing pot. In 2013, voters approved a measure to tax marijuana sales in licensed dispensaries (pot shops), and sales began on schedule New Years Eve.

The world did not end; in fact, the only major problem so far is that pot shops can’t keep enough marijuana on the shelves to meet the huge demand. Dispensary owners are raking in the cash, and so is the state. Colorado expects to collect at least $67 million in new tax revenue this year. That is $67 million that would have gone to violent drug cartels.

In April, marijuana sales will be legal in the state of Washington. Other states and the District of Columbia are considering following Colorado’s lead.

President Obama, a one-time pot smoker himself, spoke out last Sunday saying that the “experiment” in Colorado and Washington needs to go forward.” Asserting that pot is not as dangerous as alcohol, the president said that drug laws have been used to incarcerate poor people who can’t afford a lawyer like more affluent white kids and athletes and celebrities of all races.

Marijuana laws have been used to create a class of political prisoners since the war on drugs began under Nixon and went on steroids under Reagan. This war on drugs—mostly pot, has given the United States the dubious distinction of being number 1 in incarceration rates. On a per capita basis, we leave places like Russia, China, Cuba, and North Korea in the dust. Most of those “prisoners” are young men of color.

When they get out, they can’t vote for the rest of their lives in most states. Perhaps that is an intended consequence of those who would prefer to see the status quo remain.

The problem Colorado and Washington face is that although marijuana is legal in their states, it is still a felony under federal law. Feds could raid legal pot shops and farms, and could arrest people outside pot shops if they so choose. The Obama administration said the Justice Department will not do that in Colorado and Washington, but a Republican president could change that practice as soon as he or she takes the oath of office on January 20, 2017.

Pot shops have experienced a major problem in that banks and credit card companies are prohibited from doing business with them because marijuana is against federal law and they are hiding behind that law. That means pot shops are forced to operate on a cash basis—an archaic and dangerous situation.

This week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced he is working on new regulations to give legal marijuana businesses access to banks that are currently prohibited from doing business with sellers of marijuana. The agency is not expected to toss out current regulations completely, but rather direct prosecutors not to prioritize cases involving legal pot shops that use banks.

This would effectively allow legal marijuana businesses in Colorado and elsewhere to move their proceeds into banks and take payment in forms other than cash.

Politicians are watching this carefully. Friday, a Congressman from Oregon (a state where pot is still illegal) announced he is collecting signatures from fellow lawmakers on a petition to ask President Obama to take marijuana off Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Rep. Earl Blumenauer said the Obama administration was “unquestionably making the right call” by allowing pot shops to work with banks.

“It’s an important step toward fixing federal policy toward marijuana,” he said in a written statement.

It will be interesting to see how many gutless politicians will sign that petition in an election year. However, public support for the legalization of marijuana has never been higher in the polls. Maybe pot will be a campaign issue in November taking its place along side “Uncle Sugar” and women’s “out-of-control libido.”

Perhaps next week’s “Weed Bowl” will bring more national attention to the issue. Meanwhile, Colorado leads and America follows.

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