Voters in three Western U.S. states weighed ballot initiatives on Tuesday that will determine whether they become the first in the nation to legalize possession and sales of marijuana for recreational purposes, putting them at odds with federal law.
Early returns showed Colorado voter support for a proposed state constitutional amendment legalizing pot leading 52 percent to 48 percent, with roughly a third of all ballots tallied.
Public opinion polls showed support for cannabis legalization leading opponents in Washington state but trailing in Oregon, where significantly less money and campaign organization has been devoted to the cause.
Because Washington state and Oregon hold their elections exclusively by mail, the outcome will likely not be known in those states before Wednesday.
Separately, medical marijuana measures were on the ballot in three other states, including Massachusetts, whose initiative to allow cannabis for medicinal reasons was leading by a wide margin, according to CNN.
Supporters there issued a statement declaring victory for what they described as "the safest medical marijuana law in the country.
Seventeen other states, plus the District of Columbia, already have medical marijuana laws on their books.
Under the measures on the ballot in Colorado and Washington, personal possession of up to an ounce (28.5 grams) of marijuana would be made legal for anyone at least 21 years of age. Oregon's initiative would legalize possession of unlimited amounts of pot for recreational use.
All three proposals also would permit cannabis to be legally sold, and taxed, at state-licensed stores in a system modeled after the regime many states have in place for alcohol sales.
The Colorado measure also would allow personal cultivation of up to six marijuana plants, the Oregon initiative would allow individuals to grow unlimited amounts for themselves, while grow-your-own pot would be banned in Washington.
AT ODDS WITH FEDERAL LAW
But legalization would put state law in conflict with the federal government, which classifies cannabis as an illegal narcotic, even in states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon that already have statutes allowing marijuana for medical purposes.
The Obama administration has recently pressed an enforcement crackdown against marijuana dispensaries and greenhouses deemed to be engaged in large-scale drug trade under the pretense of supplying legitimate medical marijuana patients in those states.
The administration has been largely silent on the three state legalization initiatives, despite calls from former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration directors to come out forcefully against the measures, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder did when he criticized California's 2010 pot legalization referendum. That measure was soundly defeated.
Supporters of legalization say anti-pot enforcement has accomplished little, but make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens, especially minorities.
Benefits of legalization, beyond potential tax revenues, may be hard to quantify. But supporters argue that ending prosecutions of marijuana possession would free up strained law enforcement resources and strike a blow against drug cartels, much as repealing prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s crushed bootlegging by organized crime.
Critics warn that the social harms of legalizing cannabis -- from declines in economic productivity and academic achievement to a rise in traffic and workplace accidents -- would trump any benefits.
Sponsors have raised $6 million for the legalization campaign in Washington, and legalization backers in Colorado have pulled in almost $2 million. But a grassroots campaign in Oregon has struggled to sway voters.
Jean Henderson, 73, a retired resident of Broomfield, Colorado, said she voted to legalize marijuana.
"It's no worse than alcohol, and it's widely used in Colorado anyway," she said. "The state can benefit from the taxes rather than put people in jail."
Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, whose affiliate groups have funded current and past legalization initiatives, said he was more optimistic than he was before a California legalization referendum that voters rejected in 2010.
"In this case, the polling has stayed up there. It's almost like we're seeing a surge of support for this in the final week," Nadelmann said.
Connor Barker, 19, a medical marijuana dispensary worker interviewed in Olympia, Washington, said he voted against the measure because of restrictions on drivers, which he fears could lead to unwarranted arrests of motorists.
Washington's measure sets a specific legal limit for how much of marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, THC, would be permitted in the bloodstream of motorists before they are found to be impaired.
Meanwhile, voters in Arkansas were being asked whether to become the first Southern state to allow marijuana as medicine.
In Montana, medical marijuana was legalized in 2004, voters were being asked to overturn a 2011 state law that imposed tough new restrictions on medical pot and led to the shutdown of dispensaries.