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(Reuters) - Efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use are gaining momentum in Washington state and Colorado, despite fierce opposition from the federal government and a decades-long cultural battle over America's most commonly used illicit drug.
Officials in Washington state on Friday said an initiative to legalize pot has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in November. In Colorado, officials are likely this week to make a similar determination about an initiative there.
Supporters are prepared to possibly spend millions of dollars ahead of the November ballot, when they hope a strong voter turnout, particularly among youth, for the U.S. presidential election will aid their cause.
"Whether it's make or break depends on what public opinion does after 2012, but in terms of voter turnout this is the best year to do it," said Alison Holcomb, director of New Approach Washington, the initiative's sponsor.
While 16 states, including Washington and Colorado, along with the nation's capital, now allow marijuana use for medical purposes, cannabis remains an illegal narcotic under U.S. law - and public opinion is sharply divided on the merits of full legalization.
California voters turned back a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2010, in part because of concerns about how production and sale of the drug would be regulated.
Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice has cracked down on medical cannabis operations in California, Washington state and elsewhere, raiding dispensaries and growing operations and threatening landlords with prosecution.
"Our highest priority are the folks that violate both state and federal law," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "There are places that have made a lot of money who claim to be nonprofit, and they have faced both local and federal scrutiny."
Undeterred, supporters of the Washington state initiative say it represents the "grown-up" approach to legalization.
Sales would only be allowed to adults 21 and older through marijuana-only stores licensed by the state Liquor Control Board, which would also oversee production and processing of the drug. Laws on drunken driving would be amended to include maximum blood content thresholds for THC, the main psychoactive element in pot plants.
Colorado already has a robust regulatory system for medical marijuana that includes a registry of over 80,000 card-carrying patients and rules governing how physicians and distributors operate. Here, too, legalization advocates are stressing a rational regulatory approach.
"Voters aren't being asked to imagine as much as they are in other states, they have seen that marijuana can be regulated and it doesn't result in significant problems," said Mason Tvert, co-director of the Colorado-based Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
Organizers of the Washington effort have collected over $1.1 million in campaign funds, with $250,000 of that coming from Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis, public disclosure records show.
Loren Collingwood, senior researcher for the nonpartisan Washington Poll run by the University of Washington, said the initiative could pass, but that backers must spend between $2 million and $4 million to run a competitive campaign.
A poll done by the university in October found 48 percent of Washington residents support the idea of pot legalization, but that was not tied to any particular initiative.
"If young voters turn out in droves like they did in 2008 or even start to approach those numbers ... then I think this will pass, but they very well may not," Collingwood said.
Pot legalization supporters have argued for decades that prohibition has failed to curb pot use, and that the policy enriches drug cartels, hurts casual users and deprives governments of a potentially lucrative source of tax revenue.
Now, they see momentum on their side, pointing to an October Gallup Poll that found a record 50 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana use, up from 36 percent five years before.
The poll also found 62 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 back legalization, and that the young are driving the shift in attitudes.
"There's a set of factors that suggest both the Washington and Colorado initiates have a better chance of winning than any of the initiatives that have happened before," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"But that said, even with a majority of likely voters in both states saying they favor legal marijuana, we know in the final stretch there's always a small percentage that get nervous or scared off or fearful of change," he said.
Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, say it would simply promote the use of a sometimes-addictive drug that has been linked to short-term memory loss and other behavioral problems such as lack of motivation.
Legalization "is not good for states and citizens who live in those states, and it's certainly not good for the outlook of children who live in those states," said Calivina Fay, head of the Florida-based Drug Free America Foundation.
One study published in 2011 by researchers with the University of Colorado Denver found 39 out of 80 teens in a Denver substance abuse program had at least once obtained pot from someone with a medical marijuana license.
For supporters of legalization, the medical marijuana trade has been a mixed blessing. Critics say dispensaries, in addition to serving the truly sick, supply recreational users who have no real medical problems despite claims of backaches or pain.
In Washington state, about 30 or 40 cities have passed moratoriums on collective medical marijuana gardens allowed under state law, said Jim Doherty, legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. Some residents see medical marijuana sales as a nuisance, he said.
Meanwhile, Seattle has over 100 medical marijuana shops, said City Attorney Peter Holmes, who supports full legalization.
"Right now in Seattle, we're feeling that it's a bit unfair that we are being tolerant of medical marijuana users, when other localities are not, because we tend to become suppliers for the whole state rather than our own citizens," Holmes said.
Holcomb, the director of the Washington state initiative campaign, acknowledged some voters view a large share of medical pot users as illicit recreational tokers. But she said her campaign will turn the argument around, when it seeks to convince voters full legalization is good for the state.
"You're ending that hypocrisy and restoring respect for the law," she said.
Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Jonathan Weber