(NaturalNews) The state of Colorado has become the first state in the nation to open its doors to the retail sale of marijuana for recreational purposes.
Two referendums passed in the November 2012 elections in both Colorado and Washington state have effectively legalized marijuana, officially allowing for the recreational use and sale of pot - shifting significant momentum to the decriminalization and legalization of a drug that has put millions behind bars in America over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Washington state is expected to begin retail sales a few months from now.
Reports from Denver are flooding the news wire with accounts of celebratory crowds and long lines legally purchasing for the first time the controlled substance that had already become a mainstay of youth culture for its mild psychoactive effects - despite existing drug laws prohibiting its use and sale. Marijuana has also been increasingly recognized for its medical value in treating symptoms including pain, nausea, appetite loss, glaucoma, arthritis and even seizures.
Some 16 states have already decriminalized marijuana possession for individuals (under a certain amount) while 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have passed laws allowing for medical marijuana, with California becoming the most notorious, springing up a culture of retail dispensaries where patients, who apply for medical ID cards, can buy an array of products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Many are now watching to see how Colorado's exit from prohibition and entry into marijuana legalization - which includes retail sales but does not allow users to grow their own - will develop and influence changes in laws in other states. Many states, particularly those bordering Colorado, have cautioned users not to bring back marijuana, warning that it would be in violation of the law. Some in Colorado have also decried the potential rise of "pot tourism" in Denver after legalization, which has become a mainstay of travel in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Police in Denver and other parts of Colorado cautioned recreational users to be knowledgable of the law's finer points, which prohibits public use as well as its transportation to other states. Driving under the influence also remains illegal and can carry the same harsh punishment as drunk driving.
Back when the Colorado and Washington initiatives scored an electoral victory, Feds responded immediately with jurisdictional challenges, suggesting that the focus on federal drug laws would likely supercede state laws.
The DEA issued a statement shortly after those initiatives passed in 2012, stating: "In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. The Department of Justice is reviewing the ballot initiatives, and we have no additional comment at this time."
While part of the cultural shift has come with a sitting President who not only admitted to using marijuana, but quipped, "Yes I inhaled - that was the point," the crackdown on even legal dispensaries has remained a significant part of the War on Drugs under Barack Obama's presidency, despite a campaign pledge to respect state medical marijuana laws. The DEA, under the federal Justice Department headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, has repeatedly raided numerous popular medical marijuana dispensaries in California, drawing criticism.
The United States puts more people behind bars per capita than any other nation in the world, with the vast majority locked up for non-violent drug offenses. The large number of arrests and sometimes harsh sentences have frequently backed up advocates of decriminalization and calls to signal an end to the failed and often racist War on Drugs.
According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, more than 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses nationally in 2011, and that accounts for about half of all drug-related offenses. 86%, or 663,032, of those arrests were for possession only.
Marijuana prohibition dates back to the 1930s when the Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, and various notable business figures, including William Randolph Hearst, pushed for marijuana laws after driving sensationalized publicity campaigns demonizing the drug and exaggerating claims of its harm. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 officially began its regulation at the federal level, while both state and federal control ramped up over the years.