While marijuana sales approved by voters are still about a year away, possession of as much as an ounce of pot became legal today in Washington, the first U.S. state to decriminalize recreational use.
Let the toking begin.
Marijuana supporters plan an outdoor celebration tonight in a Seattle park at the foot of the Space Needle. Although smoking a joint in public remains illegal, a 2003 ordinance approved by voters makes investigating, arresting and prosecuting marijuana offenses the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.
“It is like Christmas Eve and I’m 6 years old again,” said Keith Saunders, a sociologist from Wilton, New Hampshire, who said he would fly in to attend the festivities at the Seattle Center. “This is something that people have worked a lifetime to achieve.”
Voters in Washington and Colorado last month approved ballot measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, reflecting a shift in attitudes about marijuana and building on measures that allow pot use for medical purposes in one-third of U.S. states.
The Washington law allows possession of up to one ounce (28 grams) by those 21 and older. Seattle police “will follow state law, and will no longer make arrests for marijuana possession as defined under I-502,” the police said, referring to the ballot initiative, in a guide to legal marijuana use posted on its website.
The future of the ballot measures is uncertain since marijuana is considered a controlled substance under federal law and the Justice Department is reviewing the voter-approved changes in Washington and Colorado.
“Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” according to a statement released yesterday by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Washington.
Washington is nevertheless moving forward with implementing the ballot measure, Cory Curtis, a spokesman for Governor Christine Gregoire, said by e-mail.
“State agencies that play a role in implementation, namely the Washington State Patrol and the Liquor Control Board are meeting with regularity as we meet both this Thursday’s deadline as well as the longer-term licensing and regulatory component that the voters approved,” Curtis said.
The liquor board has until Dec. 1, 2013, to adopt rules for licensing producers, processors and retailers.
“Those looking to purchase marijuana legally will have to wait a little longer because the retail outlets to purchase it from don’t exist yet,” Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said in an interview.
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. The office estimates a price of $12 per gram.
Attitudes toward marijuana use are shifting, particularly among younger voters. Fifty-one percent of American voters favor legalizing marijuana, while 44 percent oppose it, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday. Among the youngest voters, ages 18 to 29, legalization was supported by 67 percent, while 56 percent of voters older than 62 opposed it, according to the poll of 1,949 registered voters nationwide conducted Nov. 28 through Dec. 3.
“Given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in a statement.
In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper has until Jan. 5 to sign a proclamation that will make his state’s marijuana ballot measure into law, his spokesman, Eric Brown, said by e-mail.
“We are working to create a task force to identify the policy, legal and procedural issues that need to be resolved,” Brown said.
Some view the changes as a way to boost tourism and generate revenue.
Washington’s Skamania County, a mecca for hikers near the Oregon state line, sees the law as a way to draw visitors, especially from its neighboring state. Oregon levies no sales tax, which gives its retailers an advantage, said Casey Roeder, executive director of the county’s chamber of commerce.
“If people come here as a result of marijuana being legal and they spend money while they’re here, we’re going to be OK with that,” Roeder said.