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With a puff of smoke, pot becomes legal in Washington: How will this work?

Pot smokers lit up at Seattle's Space Needle to mark its legalization in Washington. Possessing marijuana, however, is still a federal crime, and it's not clear yet if, or how, federal laws will be enforced.

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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.

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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.

"These states have been politically and legally astute by passing laws that are tough for the federal government to block, mainly because they're in effect curbing the marijuana market, not facilitating it, which is perfectly consistent with federal law," says Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has studied how federalism impacts marijuana policy.

"The states can't block the federal government from rounding up and prosecuting residents who violate the Controlled Substances Act, but it's very unlikely that the federal government could wage any direct war on marijuana in these two states,” he says, “because it doesn't have the resources and [may not] have the political will or stomach" to interfere.

"We're at a crossroads here," adds Josh Meisel, co-director of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, in Arcata, Calif.

On one hand, he says, "I'd be surprised if the federal government were not to crack down on what's happening in Washington and Colorado. But I also think this could turn out to be a very significant turning point" where political opportunity and the mainstreaming of pot could cause the federal government to distance itself from marijuana regulation.

One thing is for sure, given the morning celebration in Washington: the federal government can no longer rely on local and state law enforcement to do its drug interdiction in Washington state.

Instead, the Seattle Police Department referenced the film "The Big Lebowski" – a stoner favorite – as it reminded smokers that public toking is still verboten. "The Dude abides, and says, 'Take it inside,' " the department said in a statement.


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