Washington state pot law goes into effect amid growing support for legalization

Liz Goodwin

Washington on Thursday became the first state to allow the use of recreational marijuana, a drug that is still classified as dangerous and illegal by the federal government. Dozens of people celebrated by lighting up in public places at the stroke of midnight when the law took effect, defying one of its rules: that people use pot only in their own homes.

Voters in Washington and Colorado made history last month by voting to legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. It will become legal in both states after one year for state-licensed sellers to grow and sell marijuana.

The ballot measures sailed to victory, boosted by a bipartisan campaign of local leaders in the two states who said criminalization of the drug was a waste of state resources—and promised hefty tax revenue from its sale. Colorado's legalization goes into effect no later than Jan. 6.

Pot's success on the November ballot demonstrates just how fast public opinion has moved on the issue. In the past 15 years, 18 states have approved the legal use of marijuana for those who have a medical prescription for it, but state efforts to fully legalize pot have failed until now.

Just 10 years ago, 30 percent of Americans said in a Gallup poll that they believed marijuana should be legal. In a Public Policy Polling poll from this week, 58 percent of Americans supported its legalization.

The newfound support is led by a majority of Democrats and independents saying they favor pot legalization, with a majority of Republicans still saying pot should remain illegal. Other recent polls have found support for legalization hovering around 50 percent, which still suggests a big jump during the past decade. As the Daily Beast points out, most Americans under 60 say they have used marijuana at some point in their lives, which may be partly responsible for the shift in opinion.

It's unclear whether this public support will have an effect on Congress or the White House, however.

Marijuana is classified alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 illegal drug, and the federal government says its drug laws overrule any state legalization measures. The Obama administration has taken the position that users of medical marijuana in states where it is legal should not be prosecuted, but that large-scale producers of it will be.

Legalizing the recreational use of marijuana is a whole new frontier and might draw a harsher response from the government.

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle said in a statement on Wednesday that "regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law." Durkan reminded people that bringing marijuana into federal buildings is also illegal.

Last year, Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, introduced a bill to repeal the federal ban on marijuana, leaving it up to the states to decide whether to outlaw it. The bill never made it out of committee, and no such effort is in the works right now.