People attending an Amendment 64 watch party in a bar celebrate after a local television station announced the marijuana amendment's passage, in Denver, Colo., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. The amendment would make it legal in Colorado for individuals to possess and for businesses to sell marijuana for recreational use. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

WASHINGTON — More than 36,000 people have signed a petition to the White House that seeks protection for Colorado from federal drug laws so the state can craft a regulatory structure for a recreational-marijuana industry.

Marijuana is now legal in Colorado after 54.8 percent of voters approved the drug for recreational purposes in the early November election. It was a decisive victory: More Coloradans voted for the legalization of marijuana than voted for President Barack Obama, who won the state by 5 percentage points.

Voters in the state of Washington also passed a similar measure.

The petition, along with pending legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that seeks protection from federal interference, and letters from Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Attorney General John Suthers to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, are part of a larger effort to provide clarity for how Colorado should proceed in regulating something that is against federal law.

"It's a legal gray area," said liberal syndicated columnist David Sirota, who lives in Denver and started the White House petition. "It (the petition) is a legitimate political path to get this done as opposed to just talking about it."

The language of Sirota's petition — signed by people from all over the country — mirrors pending legislation introduced by Democrat Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, from Denver and Boulder, respectively. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, reluctantly supports the bill even though he opposes marijuana legalization.

"I strongly oppose the legalization of marijuana, but I also have an obligation to respect the will of the voters given the passage of this initiative," Coffman said. "I feel obligated to support this legislation."

But even if the DeGette-Polis law passes the GOP-controlled House — an improbability given the tall to-do list before the end of the year — the power really lies with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The White House, which responds to all petitions with more than 25,000 signatures, deferred questions for this story to Justice. A spokeswoman there had no comment.

States have passed measures before at odds with federal law. Most recently Georgia, Alabama and Arizona pushed through immigration laws that the federal government has challenged in higher courts.

Colorado has had legalization of medical marijuana on the books since 2000, but the industry started thriving only in the past few years in part because the Obama administration said it would not enforce federal drug laws with marijuana when used for medicinal purposes.

But there is some indication this same administration will treat recreational marijuana differently. In 2010, a recreational-marijuana measure was on the California ballot and Holder warned California officials he would "vigorously" enforce federal drug laws if it passed. The measure failed.

"The federal government could come up with something cooperative," said Sam Kamin, a constitutional scholar at the University of Denver's law school, who has extensively studied medical- marijuana implementation in Colorado. "Or it could crack down on what is happening in Colorado and decide to act unilaterally. It depends on which Justice Department we hear from."

Hickenlooper and Suthers said in a letter they sent to Holder, "We need to know whether we can expect any different posture regarding marijuana grown and distributed for recreational use."

"Specifically," the letter said, "We need to know whether the federal government will take legal action to block the implementation of Amendment 64. ... We find no clear guidance on these issues."

Allison Sherry: 202-662-8907, asherry@denverpost.com or twitter.com/allisonsherry

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