The US has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to interdict marijuana shipments since Nixon's War on Drugs began in 1971, and last year incarcerated over 800,000 pot-possessing Americans, three-fourths of them for simple possession.
Yet the gradual cultural acceptance of marijuana – a Quinnipiac Poll released this week showed 51 percent of Americans back legalization – laid the groundwork for the states’ referendums, which in turn were buoyed by an unusual coalition of liberals, libertarians, and states' rights conservatives.
Some improbable celebrities also helped the cause, including PBS travel host Rick Steves, as did several former US attorneys and the CEO of Progressive Insurance, Peter Lewis, who pitched in $2 million to the Washington campaign's war chest. International financier George Soros also supported the campaign through groups like the Drug Policy Alliance in New York.
The law passed by referendum in Washington state allows the sale and use of pot, as well as possession of up to an ounce. It also added new regulations against driving while high, including an intoxication limit that can be measured by police after a traffic stop.
The looming question is how the Obama administration will respond to the laws taking effect. So far, the US Justice Department has remained mum about its plans, although the US Attorney's office in Seattle posted a statement on Thursday saying that its "responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress."
The federal government is waiting in part for the states to actually come up with their regulatory schemes, which will take some time. But given the wording of both laws, it's going to be difficult for the federal government to block the efforts outright, legal experts say.