(MCT) — SEATTLE—Maybe even a little before 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Washingtonians started celebrating—on sidewalks, in parks, outside bars and on their own comfy couches—a new marijuana law that is among the most liberal in the world.
The festivities culminated with a big, hazy party Thursday night at Seattle Center, 79 years and a day after the 21st Amendment, repealing alcohol prohibition, was ratified.
Unlike that repeal, Washington’s new law starts with a messy conflict with the federal ban on marijuana, sure to grow messier once the state begins licensing marijuana grow farms and retail stores next year.
Until then, this will be “the year of the magical ounce,” as one activist called it. Adults 21 and over can have that much for recreational use, but until the marijuana stores open, there’s nowhere to legally buy it. Nor is there any legal place to use it, except behind closed doors.
Late Thursday, a peaceful, happy crowd of about 200 people marked the historic moment at Seattle Center’s International Fountain. Ambers glowed, and clouds of Dutch Treat, Pez and WMD and other marijuana strains wisped into the night.
Before the law took effect, Gov. Chris Gregoire had a second conversation with the Department of Justice about the potential federal response. The department has given no indication whether it plans to sue to block Washington’s law, or a similar measure in Colorado that takes effect within a month. Gregoire got no more clarity this week, said spokesman Cory Curtis.
Locally, Seattle police announced they would not write tickets for public use of marijuana, which is now equivalent to public drinking. Police will “give you a generous grace period to help you adjust to this brave, new, and maybe kinda stoned world we live in,” according to a post on the department’s blog.
Other police also appeared to take a laissez-faire approach. “The people have spoken in a very clear way,” said Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes, who is also president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which opposed the legalization measure.
“It’s not about our personal individual law or set of convictions or beliefs,” he said. “We’ve sworn to uphold the law of the state, and the law has changed.”
Even before the party quiets down, the state has begun a yearlong process to set rules for the first-of-its-kind, regulated, for-profit recreational-marijuana market.
The Liquor Control Board is taking public comments until Feb. 10 about the rules and restrictions needed for a marijuana-grower license. Similar rule-making is planned for marijuana processor and retailer licenses.
Despite uncertainty about federal intervention, investors and businessmen are swarming.
The state estimates Washington’s market alone at $1 billion a year, with 363,000 customers consuming 187,000 pounds of marijuana, all of which must be grown in the state. Steep sin taxes are projected to raise $560 million a year.
Jamen Shively, a former Microsoft corporate strategy manager, rang in legalization at his Bellevue mansion with the launch of his new gourmet-marijuana retail brand, Diego Pellicer.
He envisions boutique shops dispensing “small quantities to responsible adults,” but said he won’t start until he’s convinced the plan is “sufficiently legal,” and won’t make him a target for federal agents.
“This is the first moment in U.S. history—and maybe the world’s history—when we know a $50 (billion) to $100 billion market is going to materialize overnight, for which there does not exist a single brand,” said Shively. He predicted a “river of money” from investors.
Kevin Oliver, executive director of the Washington chapter of NORML, said his group is researching whether it could open a members-only lounge he called “an Elks Club of cannabis.”
Doing so may conflict with the state indoor-smoking ban, which protects employees from secondhand smoke.
James Apa, spokesman for Public Health—Seattle & King County, said staff were still examining the new law. “We’re taking a really close look, but I’m not at a point where we’ve made a determination on that.”
At midday Thursday, pungent marijuana smoke wafted through Seattle’s high-tech hub in South Lake Union, from no apparent source.
We’ll likely need to get used to it. A study of the potential impact of marijuana legalization in California in 2010 predicted use could double, bringing it up to the all-time-high consumption rates of the 1970s.
About $44 million of the new marijuana sin taxes in Washington’s law are earmarked for marijuana education and intervention programs. But that money won’t come until state-licensed marijuana stores open next December, or later.
Derek Franklin, head of a group of substance-abuse treatment providers, said his group would fight “to keep marijuana from going the way of cigarettes in the 1950s and becoming a normal part of daily life in Washington.”
The owners of several medical-marijuana dispensaries, which are unaffected by the new law, reported off-the-street customers demanding to buy from them, though they lacked medical authorizations.
If they hit the black market instead, they are likely to find it awash in supply. One experienced local grower, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a bumper crop of Northern California-grown marijuana has flooded the market.
“There’s a massive amount of cannabis available, compared to what it was three months ago,” the grower said.
“I’m not breaking any laws!” yelled John Sanders, holding a zip-lock bag of marijuana over his head at the Seattle Center celebration.
Sanders, chairman of the Edmonds Community College music department, brought his 11- and 9-year-old daughters to show them “democracy in action.” He said he wasn’t going to smoke marijuana there because public consumption remains illegal, but brought the baggie to exercise his new rights.
“I feel way more comfortable telling people now that I’m a marijuana user,” he said, smiling nervously. “I don’t have any inhibitions at all.”
The idea of “coming out of the marijuana closet” was repeated at the celebration. Vivian McPeak, co-founder of Seattle’s Hempfest, the largest marijuana-focused festival in the U.S., took the long view.
“We’ve lived our entire lives under prohibition, and never known anything else,” McPeak said. “It’s a huge quantum shift in thinking. I think what everybody sees is, if two states go this easily, the entire wall can come down faster than we thought possible.”
THE NEW LAW
Possession: State criminal penalties for possession of 1 ounce of marijuana (or 1 pound in cannabis-infused food, or 72 ounces of cannabis-infused drink) are eliminated. Public consumption of marijuana, like alcohol, can mean a $50 fine.
Employment: The new law does not change the right of employers to drug-test employees.
DUI: A level of 5 nanograms of THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, in a driver’s blood becomes equivalent to a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level for driving under the influence.
Medical marijuana: Not affected by the new law.