This looked to be an update on a page post from a couple days earlier: “123 confirmed attendees for a smoke-in at Seattle Center.” People were then encouraged “to bring an ounce of pot, a friend and any leftover fireworks."
On Nov. 6, while you were watching the results of the presidential election, Washington state generated fireworks of its own. This state and Colorado became the first two in the country to legalize recreational marijuana use, rebuffing longstanding federal law in the bargain.
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For a national culture that’s veered from “Reefer Madness” vilification to wry winks at pot as a personal eccentricity, the effective repeal of marijuana’s illicit status in some areas is a break from the past with no road map forward. It’s uncharted territory for those state governments, as they figure out how to walk a walk they’ve never walked before.
Under Washington’s Initiative 502, which won decisively at the polls, “possession, by a person twenty-one years of age or older, of useable marijuana or marijuana-infused products in amounts that do not exceed those set forth in section 15(3) of this act is not a violation of this section, this chapter, or any other provision of Washington state law.”
It’s this language of the law that makes it “simply not pre-emptable,” according to Pete Holmes, the Seattle city attorney, a prosecutor and an I-502 co-sponsor, interviewed by The Stranger.
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KEITH STROUP, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), hailed Washington’s initiative as "the single most important thing in the marijuana legalization movement in the last 75 years," and predicted other states would follow suit.
“That's exactly what happened at the end of alcohol prohibition. I think that's exactly what's going to happen here," Stroup said to The Seattle Times.
But there are some issues that aren’t that clear-cut. Possession is cool, for example, but cultivation or sale are not. But one thing’s clear: Washington state is already staking out its territory as dealer of first resort. Under the new law, It will be illegal to buy marijuana for recreational use anywhere except state-licensed marijuana stores; those stores won't open until at least December 2013. Those stores are estimated to generate almost $2 billion in revenue over five years.
And the new law could create issues in the workplace, as employers decide how to proceed long-term with a legally-decided shift in public tolerance toward marijuana — and how, or whether, that shift will affect their hiring and promotion decisions deep in the future.
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“There’s no handbook for any of this,” said Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, 29, a former crime reporter for The Stranger, in an interview with The New York Times. He wrote the “Marijwhatnow” blog post on the Seattle Police Department Web site, a kind of guide to this uncharted legal landscape — and apparently a well-regarded one; The Times reported that the blog post has more than 26,000 Facebook “likes” and more than 218,000 page views since it went up shortly after the election.
Can I legally carry around an ounce of marijuana?
According to the recently passed initiative, beginning December 6th, adults over the age of 21 will be able to carry up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Please note that the initiative says it “is unlawful to open a package containing marijuana…in view of the general public,” so there’s that. Also, you probably shouldn’t bring pot with you to the federal courthouse (or any other federal property).
Well, where can I legally buy pot, then?
The Washington State Liquor Control Board is working to establish guidelines for the sale and distribution of marijuana. The WSLCB has until December 1, 2013 to finalize those rules. In the meantime, production and distribution of non-medical marijuana remains illegal.
Does I-502 affect current medical marijuana laws?
No, medical marijuana laws in Washington remain the same as they were before I-502 passed.
Can I grow marijuana in my home and sell it to my friends, family, and co-workers?
Not right now. In the future, under state law, you may be able to get a license to grow or sell marijuana.
Can I smoke pot outside my home? Like at a park, magic show, or the Bite of Seattle?
Much like having an open container of alcohol in public, doing so could result in a civil infraction — like a ticket — but not arrest. You can certainly use marijuana in the privacy of your own home.
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WHAT’S LESS cut and dried (or less cut and dried and smoked) is where employers in Washington state stand on a law so new that most of its components haven’t kicked in yet. "We think 502 changes everything," said Dan Swedlow, senior staff attorney at the Teamsters Local 117. "We're clearly headed for a showdown with some employers," Swedlow told the Seattle Times.
“But across the state,” Martin reports, “enforcing such policies for after-hours use is likely to be contentious, especially for unionized workers, because most workplace marijuana tests don't differentiate past use — even weeks prior — from the impairing buzz of a freshly smoked joint.”
And over time, as other states join Washington and Colorado in a social experiment that shouldn’t be one, and as employers discover more and more applicants indulging in a perfectly legal product, the pool of those who don’t actively smoke the herb, or who’ve never indulged, will get smaller and smaller.
Not so many decades ago, marijuana use was an absolute prohibitive tripwire facing candidates for the presidency, a cultural line in the sand any credible candidate didn’t dare cross. At last count, we’ve had at least two presidents who smoked in the past (one of whom swears he “didn’t inhale”). Such is social change.
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In a letter released on Friday, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington and other members of Congress have formally requested that the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration not enforce federal statutes against pot use in the two bellwether states. And at a Nov. 14 press conference, incoming Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee stood behind the vote, despite his own misgivings.
“My belief is Washington has worked its will,” he said. “The voters have spoken. I was not supportive of the initiative but I’m going to be fully supportive of protecting, defending, and implementing the will of the voter.”
The punitive landscape is changing fast. Already, prosecutors in two of Washington’s biggest counties have dumped all misdemeanor cases of marijuana possession; other localities are expected to do much the same. And in Colorado on Friday, police in Colorado Springs, south of Denver, returned 60 pounds of marijuana to a leukemia patient, The Denver Post reported.
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WHERE IT all goes from here starting Dec. 6, and certainly after, is hard to see. On Tuesday, Raymond Yans, head of the International Narcotics Control Board, the narcotics watchdog agency of the United Nations, called on Attorney General Eric Holder to take “all the necessary measures" to make sure marijuana possession and use stays illegal in the United States — consistent with the U.S. status as a signatory to the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Under the treaty, signatories agree to "adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant.” But what seems to be unambiguous language is anything but. If a state decriminalizes marijuana, what constitutes “misuse”? How can “illicit traffic” exist if the use of marijuana is state-sanctioned, and voter-approved? This is terra incognita for the UN, too.
As two of the United States embark on another experiment in tolerance, the testing of personal boundaries and society’s bandwidth for change, expect answers to these questions — and more questions ... when the smoke clears.
Image credits: Bud: Garretttaggs55 via Wikipedia; reprinted under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Seattle pot smoker: Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times. Barack Obama as a younger man: © Lisa Jack.