Washington and Colorado voters approved legalization of marijuana for recreational use, making them the first U.S. states to decriminalize the practice.
Washington will allow those at least 21 years old to buy as much as one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana from a licensed retailer. Colorado's measure allows possession of an ounce, and permits growing as many as six plants in private, secure areas.
"The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will," Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement. "This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado said federal law was not affected by the vote.
"The Department of Justice's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," said Jeff Dorschner in a statement. "We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time."
Washington and Colorado were among six states with marijuana on their ballots. Voters in Oregon were also considering legalization of recreational use. In Massachusetts, residents approved a measure to allow medical use, which is already permitted in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Montana and Arkansas also put measures dealing with the medical use of marijuana before their citizens.
"It's very monumental," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington-based group that advocates legalizing marijuana. "No state has ever done this. Technically, marijuana isn't even legal in Amsterdam."
The approval of recreational pot goes a step beyond its acceptance in medical use. California was the first state to permit medical-marijuana when voters approved it in 1996. Federal prosecutors cracked down on the medical-marijuana industry in California last year, threatening landlords with jail if they didn't evict the shops.
"Regardless of state laws to the contrary, there is no such thing as 'medical' marijuana under federal law," according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released a letter a month before California voters considered a ballot measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2010, saying the Justice Department would "vigorously" enforce federal law. The initiative failed.
A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, declined to comment yesterday when reached by telephone.
In Washington state, decriminalization and new rules on driving under the influence take effect Dec. 6. The state liquor control board must adopt rules by Dec. 1, 2013 for licensing producers, processors and retailers.
The Washington measure may generate as much as $1.9 billion in revenue over five fiscal years, according to the state's Office of Financial Management.