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Majority of Americans to Feds: Let the Weed Smokers Be

As the government weighs their options, polls show that Americans are light on marijuana

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Washington residents lit up Wednesday night as possession of marijuana officially became legal in the state. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/ AP)

A day after marijuana became effectively legal in Washington, compelling the Justice Department to consider possible legal action against the state, a new poll announces that a majority of Americans think the federal government should simply back down and let Americans light up and enjoy their new won freedom.

According to the HuffPost/YouGov poll released Friday, fifty-one percent of Americans support the idea that "in the two states that have legalized marijuana use for adults, the federal government should exempt any adults following state laws from federal drug law enforcement." Only 30 percent of those polled believe federal enforcement agencies should continue to expend resources in states where voters have approved new rules legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

Poll respondents (pdf) were even more friendly in regards to medical marijuana, with fifty-eight percent favoring exemptions from federal drug laws in those cases, and only 23 percent opposed.

Crowds of pot proponents gathered at midnight Wednesday in downtown Seattle to ring in the enaction of State Initiative 502. The celebration, at least temporarily, disregarded a statement issued earlier that day by US Justice Department attorney in Seattle, Jenny A. Durkan, who reminded Washington residents that the drug remained illegal.

“Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6 in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” she said. “The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.”

Durkan's statement echos media reports that "the Obama administration has been holding high-level meetings since the election to debate the response of federal law enforcement agencies to the decriminalization efforts."

According to several people familiar with the deliberations, "senior White House and Justice Department officials are considering plans for legal action against Colorado and Washington that could undermine voter-approved initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in those states," the New York Times reports.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described a number of litigation options but cautioned that the issue "had raised complex legal and policy considerations — including enforcement priorities, litigation strategy and the impact of international antidrug treaties."

During the Administration's first term, the Justice Department issued a policy for handling states that have legalized medical marijuana which required that federal officials not use their "limited resources to go after small-time users" but should rather target large-scale trafficking organizations. The surprising consequence of which was an uptick on federal raids on marijuana dispensaries.

However, as these closed-door discussions continue, growing support and acceptance of marijuana, particularly among liberal demographics, makes pursuance a “sticky wicket for Obama,” as stated by University of Texas professor Bruce Buchanan.

Another poll released this week found that the majority of American voters support the legalization of marijuana, fifty-one percent to forty-four percent, with "men and younger voters holding more tolerant public views about use of the drug."

Of the findings, Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown noted:

With the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes legal in about 20 states, and Washington and Colorado voting this November to legalize the drug for recreational use, American voters seem to have a more favorable opinion about this once-dreaded drug.

It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time.

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