In landmark decisions that could reshape American drug laws, Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize some marijuana use – although one state's governor is warning that the battle isn't over yet.
In Colorado, Amendment 64 was widely projected to pass in voting Tuesday evening, a night in which the swing state also backed President Barack Obama. The amendment was leading 53 per cent to 47 per cent with a majority of ballots counted.
It legalizes the personal use, possession and, in some cases, home-growing of marijuana for anyone over age 21. It also opens the door for the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp, and establishes a system to tax marijuana.
Adults would be free to carry up to an ounce of marijuana, or to grow up to six plants, in Colorado. The vote follows a move, three years ago, to regulate use of medical marijuana in the state. Since then, home clinics have popped up across the state as part of what was dubbed a "green rush."
The campaign behind the ballot initiative – formally named the "Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol" – welcomed the news.
"Coloradans have sent a message that they are fed up with marijuana prohibition and they think it's time for a new approach," campaign co-director Mason Tvert told The Globe. The state has 30 days to certify the vote, he said. "At that point, it will no longer be a crime for adults over 21 to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana."
A similar initiative in 2006 failed in Colorado, but sparked discussion. Mr. Tvert's organization projects $24-million in additional state revenues, a $12-million drop in prison costs and an end to unnecessary prosecutions.
"For 80 years, people have been misled to believe marijuana is more harmful than it actually is. And here in Colorado, people have recognized marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. And it's irrational to punish adults for choosing to use a less harmful product," Mr. Tvert argued.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, however, cautioned that marijuana was still considered illegal under federal law. "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through," Mr. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a statement released by his office, adding: "don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish [sic] too quickly."
Mr. Tvert fired back, saying the voters have spoken. "I would take Cheetos over sour grapes."
At a celebration Tuesday, Democratic party organizer Kathleen Ricker, who led efforts in one of Colorado's most populous and Republican counties, said the fact African-Americans were incarcerated under marijuana charges more frequently swayed her vote.
"It was a tough decision for me," Ms. Ricker told The Globe, as supporters cheered Mr. Obama's re-election. "I could not accept the fact that a greater number of African Americans were being jailed for this than whites. It became a racist issue."
In Washington state, Initiative 502 legalized recreational use of marijuana – like Colorado, carrying up to one ounce will be legal in one month. Washington now has a year to set up a regulated, highly-taxed system to sell marijuana through licensed shops, according to a report by the Seattle Times.
One other state was considering legalization – Oregon's State Measure 80, legalizing marijuana, failed to pass in Tuesday's voting.
Both Washington and Oregon also backed Mr. Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
In a Gallup poll released last month, 50 per cent of Americans said marijuana should be legal, a record high. An earlier poll showed 70 per cent of Americans supported allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana as a treatment for pain.