Weed Wars: The Fight To Get High Heats Up in Three States

Colorado, Oregon and Washington on the forefront of pot legalization, despite federal ban

Medical marijuana caregiver Bret Kantola examines the bud on a new strain of medical marijuana that he is growing in his grow facility in Denver on June 23, 2011.
By + More

Just to be clear, the federal government doesn't sanction smoking weed ever, regardless of your health.

Yet, in 17 states and the District of Columbia residents can use marijuana if they can prove it's for medicinal purposes.

After Nov. 6, however, residents in three more states may not even need a doctor's note to legally smoke a doobie. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington are defying the federal government and attempting to end pot prohibition altogether.

[RELATED: NYC Suburb Welcomes NJ's First Pot Dispensary]

Washington's I-502 proposition is polling the best among the three pro-pot ballot initiatives. The measure would license and regulate marijuana production, distribution and possession and would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed.

"It's not about getting high," says Alison Holcomb, the spokeswoman for Yes on I-502. "This is about laws that work better for our community."

Proponents say legalizing pot would free up cops and courts to focus on more serious crimes.

The measure is so popular with local law enforcement in Washington that Pete Holmes, the current Seattle city attorney sponsored the legislation and dozens of judges and lawmakers have endorsed it. And the pro marijuana groups have raised roughly $5.5 million for their campaign, out-raising the competition by nearly 1000-to-1. Holcomb says groups like Drug Policy Action and individual donors like Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, have helped the group gain fundraising momentum in the state.

[SEE ALSO: Current, Former Cops Make Push to Legalize Marijuana]

But Steve Sarich, spokesman for the "no on I-502" campaign says the measure is the wrong path to legalization.

Sarich, who is a medical marijuana patient, says the measure discriminates against individuals who use the drug medicinally.

I-502 includes a provision to eradicate driving under the influence of THC, the active chemical in marijuana, which could keep patients from getting behind the wheel of a car.

Under I-502, drivers who have more than 5 nanograms of THC per millimeter of active blood in their system can be prosecuted.

[DOPE: Teen Marijuana Use Associated With Drop in Intelligence]

"This is just a matter of picking us off," Sarich says. "Medical marijuana patients medicate every day, and they have to drive."

Sarich argues there is little scientific evidence showing THC affects a driver's ability to focus on the road.

"I am probably four times the legal limit right now, and I am not impaired," Sarich said over the phone.

A study by Canadian researchers earlier this year, however, showed people who smoke marijuana within three hours of driving were twice as likely to wind up in a car accident as someone who hadn't used. Even NORML, a pro-pot group, agreed that marijuana "mildly impairs psychomotor skills." NORML did clarify that the effects were less dangerous than driving drunk.

[RELATED: Rep. Lee Sponsors Legislation to End Obama's Crackdown on Medical Marijuana]

Sarich says the other big problem with I-502 is it ignores federal laws. Under federal law marijuana is classified as being just as dangerous as heroin with no exceptions for medical use.

Experts estimate if I-502 were adopted, Washingtonians would purchase 93.5 tons of marijuana every year, which could generate up to $60 million in revenue for the state.

"Federal authorities are not going to turn their head and look the other way," Sarich says.

Roger Sherman, the leader of Colorado's anti-pot group shares similar concerns.

While Colorado's ballot amendment 64 doesn't outlaw driving under the influence of too much THC, Sherman says Coloradans could still face federal penalties for a state-sanctioned activity.

[CHART: What The DEA Refuses To Admit About Drugs]

"You can still be engaging in illegal activity no matter how amendment 64 turns out," Sherman says. "The federal law is not going to stand idly by."

Sam Kamin, a professor of law at the University of Denver, says it's unclear what the federal government might do.

Kamin says the federal government has turned a blind eye to most of the flourishing medical marijuana industries popping up in Californian and Colorado.