DENVER – The day drug-legalization activists have been waiting for arrived Monday, when Gov. John Hickenlooper certified the vote on Amendment 64 and officially legalized marijuana use by adults.
Hickenlooper also set up a task force to figure out how to regulate marijuana – everything from licensing stores to safety standards for people who bake and sell pot brownies.
“Our voters very clearly said they thought this was a step forward. I think our job now is to make sure that we do the best we can to respect the will of those voters and to make that step forward as thoughtful and as constructive as we possibly can,” Hickenlooper said.
Amendment 64 passed with 55 percent of the vote in the November election.
Its sponsor supported Hickenlooper’s move to create a task force to figure out what to do next.
“This is truly a historic day,” said Mason Tvert, sponsor of Amendment 64. “This is new. And with any major policy shift like this, there are going to be major questions that need to be answered.”
Hickenlooper opposed Amendment 64, but he said the debate is over, and now it’s time to figure out how to implement the law.
“If the voters go out and pass something and they put it into the state constitution by a significant margin, far be it from myself or any governor to overrule. That’s why it’s a democracy,” Hickenlooper said.
However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law – something that Colorado’s top federal prosecutor pointed out.
“The (Department (of Justice’s) responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress,” U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a prepared statement.
But Tvert said Monday’s action matters because almost all marijuana-possession crimes are prosecuted in state and local courts.
Amendment 64 removed Colorado’s legal penalties for adults age 21 and older for possessing marijuana and using it in private. It’s still forbidden to use the drug in public, to possess large amounts of it and to help underage people use it.
The amendment also calls on the Legislature to pass a set of laws to regulate marijuana similar to the way alcohol is regulated. Marijuana could be sold in special stores that are similar to medical marijuana dispensaries, but local governments could ban the stores from their jurisdictions.
Colorado and federal officials have been talking about how the federal government will react to legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. But the Department of Justice has not told Hickenlooper when it will make a decision.
“What we want is clarity. Either the federal government is going to step up and intervene legally, or they’re going to change the Controlled Substances Act in some way,” Hickenlooper said.
But he said he thinks federal law enforcers are being as diligent as they can as they react to the vote.
The governor said he’s most concerned about how legalization will affect young people. Although underage people use both alcohol and marijuana, their use of alcohol – which is legal for adults – is 50 percent higher than pot use.
Hickenlooper has a “serious sense of urgency” about the task force, because Amendment 64 requires regulations to be in place by July 1. The Legislature meets Jan. 9 to May 8, and it will have to approve or reject the task force’s recommendations.
The 24-member task force includes legislators and members of Hickenlooper’s cabinet, legal experts, marijuana activists and a doctor who specializes in treating addiction.
The group’s first meeting will be Monday, and Hickenlooper wants it to finish its work no later than Feb. 28.