Marijuana Becomes Legal This Week, As Long As It ‘Falls From The Sky’

Dec 5, 2012

This Thursday it becomes legal under Washington state law to possess marijuana. But there’s no way to legally buy it, except for medical use. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. A federal challenge could stall attempts to sell marijuana in state-licensed stores.

Credit Photo Credit: Amy Radil

Martha Koester is a retired chemist living in southwest Seattle. On this weekday she’s brought her laptop to a local coffee shop. Koester says she was glad when Initiative 502 passed – she’d like to try smoking marijuana for her insomnia.

And she says she’s happy to pay the taxes the state says it will charge. In exchange, she wants testing so she’ll know what she’s buying is pure. Not like the stuff she smoked growing up.

Koester: “The more it’s underground, the more that kind of stuff you’re going to have, the more contamination, the more cutting it with ‘ditchweed.’ That’s the stuff we used to smoke in central Illinois by the way – and this tells you how sophisticated we were, we’d strip the leaves off of it and cut the stems into cigarette-sized pieces and smoke the stems.”

But those state-licensed stores don’t exist yet. And Koester says her condition doesn’t meet the standard for medical marijuana. So she’s holding off for now.

Koester: “You know, you get old and set in your ways and used to having certain routines, and you simply don’t want them being disrupted by getting arrested.”

Colorado just legalized marijuana as well. Their law envisions allowing people to grow their own marijuana. Here, King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg says it’s a little more mysterious.

Satterberg: “Two things you can’t do: one is you can’t buy marijuana legally anywhere and the other is you can’t grow your own. So it creates sort of a curious situation where I guess it’s supposed to fall from the sky.”

Satterberg’s office has already dropped the charges in pending marijuana cases, in line with the new law. Minors can still face misdemeanor charges for having marijuana, but Satterberg says he’d rather find alternatives like community service to avoid giving them criminal records.

In the Seattle area, local law enforcement officials say going after anything marijuana-related is not a high priority right now. Seattle Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel says SPD respects medical marijuana laws, and will only look into marijuana growing or selling if someone files a complaint.

Pugel: “I would not be surprised if some people decide to start growing. I can’t emphasize enough, though, we don’t go out looking for marijuana. The city ordinance is clear, it says that it’s the lowest priority and unless we are told to go out and we are looking for a lost child, we’re investigating a domestic violence incidence, we’re investigating any type of crime and inadvertently come across an illegal grow, then we have to do something.”

He says SPD doesn’t see many changes coming as a result of the new law. As long as people are discreet.

Pugel: “What people voted for was not public display or public use of marijuana. So I think collectively those who want it to succeed and be a success as well as those of us who are tasked with enforcing the initiative and all other laws, all we ask is obey the law.”

The state Liquor Control Board has one year to put together rules for licensing marijuana growers and sellers. The taxes are supposed to generate money for various state programs. But King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says he expects a federal challenge to come first.

Satterberg: “I predict that the federal government will come in and sue the states of Colorado and Washington, and that the issue about whether a state can license and permit a distribution scheme and a growing scheme to sell marijuana, that will find its way within a couple of years to the United States Supreme Court.”

Satterberg says federal authorities will likely seek an injunction, bringing the licensing process to “a grinding halt.” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, a longstanding supporter of legalization, is hopeful that a confrontation can be avoided. He says a federal injunction is conceivable. But he’s hoping that this first year can be used to reach a solution outside the courts.

Holmes: “That’s another reason why I think the one-year rule making period, even though it creates a one-year gap between the supply side and the right to possess marijuana, it also allows us time to negotiate with the federal government to find ways that I-502 complements rather than conflicts with federal law.”

In addition to federal authorities, medical marijuana suppliers also opposed Initiative 502. They especially disagreed with the new limit on marijuana in drivers’ bloodstreams. They say it will be used to convict drivers who aren’t impaired.

A member of the “No on 502” group has filed a lawsuit in Thurston County seeking to have the initiative voided. A hearing on the lawsuit has been scheduled for Friday, just after the new law takes effect.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio