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How will Feds deal with marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington?

A potential showdown will probably not target individual users of the drug, instead focusing on new regulations that will make marijuana sales permissible, a violation of federal law.

By Staff writer / November 12, 2012

Medical marijuana is packaged for sale in 1-gram packages at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle Nov. 7. Votes this week by Colorado and Washington to allow adult marijuana possession have prompted what could be a turning point in the nation's conflicted and confusing war on drugs.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File

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Now that voters in Colorado and Washington have approved legalized sales of marijuana in those two states, the federal government is expected to aggressively confront the new laws through lawsuits saying they are invalidated under US law.

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A potential showdown between state and federal authorities will probably not target individual users of the drug, instead focusing on new regulations that will make marijuana sales permissible, a violation of federal law.

“Federal law is federal law; it’s pretty black and white,” says Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration. “How it’s enforced, given resource constraints, is that small-scale users will likely not be targeted. But you’re going to see efforts by the Justice Department against large commercial grows or retail sales or states making money off the new laws.”

The measures passed last week in Washington State and Colorado both allow the recreational use of marijuana, but of more interest to federal authorities is that they require states to establish a system to license, regulate, and tax commercial retailers expected to sell the drug, including industrial hemp. Such a system would be much like what currently exists for the sales of alcohol and tobacco.

Under the new laws, the sale and possession of marijuana is restricted to adults 21 and older and does not apply to public use of the drug. The Colorado law also allows for a person to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use in the privacy of his or her home, but forbids their sale.

So far, the US Department of Justice has not commented on what steps it might take against either state.

“In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time,” Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre told CBS News last week, referring to the Colorado measure.

An amendment will be added to the constitution of each state by January, but it will take time before lawmakers can create a regulatory system to establish how and where the drug can be sold, a process that may go into 2014.

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