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November 07, 2012 4:31 PM The Uncertain Future of Marijuana Markets

By Max Ehrenfreund

Voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana yesterday. Although the drug is still illegal under federal law, Reason’s Jacob Sullum explains that there isn’t much Washington can do: With only 5,500 agents, the Drug Enforcement Administration relies almost exclusively on state troopers, sheriffs’ deputies, and police officers to enforce federal drug policy.

Washington does have other methods, Sullum explains:

The DEA can raid state-legal pot shops, as it has done with medical marijuana dispensaries, but the number of potential targets will be considerably larger once the market officially expands to include recreational users. The Justice Department can use asset forfeiture as an intimidation tactic against landlords and threaten banks that accept deposits from pot businesses with money laundering charges. The Internal Revenue Service can make life difficult for pot sellers by disallowing their business expenses.

If the federal government adopts these measures aggressively, it could make starting a pot shop in Colorado and Washington very difficult, even if the owner gets a license from the state. The good news for residents of those states is that even without a large commercial marijuana sector (a strange thing to think about), society will still realize some of the benefits of legalization. Law enforcement agencies will be able to focus their limited resources on dangerous criminals, and states won’t have to spend profligately to imprison nonviolent drug offenders. In poor communities, people will be more willing to trust the police.

After the results in Colorado and Washington, is national legalization on the way? In a nationwide poll a year ago, Gallup asked, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” Fully half of respondents said that marijuana should be legal, including more than a third of Republicans. The problem is that, historically, supporting legalization has been more likely to lose votes for an elected official than it is to gain votes. A conservative legislator could easily alienate a large segment of her base by voting to legalize marijuana without winning over moderate and liberal voters, since fervent supporters of legalization are relatively few. (On the other hand, Tom Tancredo (!!) starred in a full-throated endorsement of Colorado’s legalization initiative.)

In any case, it will probably take several years before this new ideological reality trickles into national politics.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund