Colorado and Washington both passed ballot measures Tuesday night that legalized recreational marijuana use for people over 21 in those states.
Oregon voted on a similar measure, but it was defeated. If you live in Colorado and Washington, you may want to hold off on growing a pot plant until the legal dust has settled.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was one of the first people to warn cannabis fans that their high hopes may not be a reality just yet.
"The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will," Hickenlooper said in a written statement released by his office. "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 gold fish too quickly."
Because the measure legalizing marijuana will become part of Colorado's Constitution, yet the Washington bill allowing recreational use of the drug could still be vetoed by its governor, President Obama will have to decide how he wants to deal with this conflict between state and federal law that harkens back to the days of alcohol prohibition.
The president will have to figure out whether to enforce the federal prohibition of pot in Washington and Colorado. His record with handling medical marijuana, which also violates federal law, may foreshadow how he will handle the two states.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says in the Obama administration's first term more than 400 medical marijuana dispensaries were raided and most of those were in California.
"Interestingly, a person like Obama, who has an affinity, at least one can think regarding his 'choom gang' days with marijuana, pragmatically speaks about it as a state senator and later as a federal senator. And then becomes president and has to run to the middle on the issue pretty clearly. And now that is the great mystery, going into his second term here -- what, if anything, are they going to do here," said St. Pierre.
On Tuesday, Massachusetts became the 18th state to pass a law permitting medical marijuana along with the District of Colombia, but legalizing medical marijuana failed in Arkansas. In Montana, voters rejected a proposed restriction of the state's medical marijuana law.
Obama will have to decide whether he will fight all the various state-approved marijuana laws in the courts. In Session's legal experts say these laws could raise constitutional issues because of the Supremacy Clause, which means that federal laws trump state laws when there is a conflict.
St. Pierre says that if the courts strike down the laws allowing recreational marijuana use, it doesn't matter because popular opinion is growing for legalizing marijuana and Congress will eventually change their federal laws to catch up to the states.
"When NORML was founded in 1970, about 9% of the population favored legalization and today it's about 50% nationwide, so clearly the country has moved remarkably toward ending prohibition and coming up with pragmatic alternatives like tax and regulate models, that look very similar to what we have for alcohol and tobacco models. Nate Silver, over at The New York Times, has a predicative model in place right now indicating that he thinks 60% of Americans will want marijuana legalized by 2021."
St. Pierre says popular opinion is growing for ending pot prohibition because of the revenue that can be generated from the marijuana industry.
"California NORML has estimates that the legalization market in general in California alone is a $5 billion a year market," said St. Pierre. "Marijuana tourism here is going to make the folks in Amsterdam and Jamaica be very, very jealous."