Mellow in Seattle: Washington State’s First Day of Legal Pot

Lots of questions still need to be ironed out but recreational marijuana smoke now wafts legitimately through the air of the Evergreen State

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Matthew Ryan Williams / Redux

More than 600 people showed up for Seattle's first Cannabis Farmer's Market, held at the Little Red Bistro in South Lake Union on Feb. 27, 2011.

Clouds of celebratory pot smoke went up at a few quiet outdoor celebrations yesterday, Day One of Washington State’s legalization of possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. But the people who pushed the groundbreaking new law to victory stayed conspicuously dull. “So boring,” is how Alison Holcomb, lead writer of the decriminalization measure that 55% of Washington voters approved in November, described her day. Her one indulgence: a private dinner with friends that was “a very mellow occasion” with “very tasty” food.

Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief who backed the legalization effort after becoming disillusioned with the federal drug war as a cop, said he marked Thursday by “toasting the moment in a smokeless bar with martini-swilling pals, and looking forward to the national struggle.” The Seattle City Attorney, Pete Holmes, who a few years ago announced he would stop prosecuting this city’s citizens for simple possession because of his objections to America’s overall marijuana policy, declared he would follow the new Washington law to the letter–including its prohibition on smoking pot in public view. “Whatever I do will be in the privacy of my own home,” Holmes said. “I want to model that conduct.”

(MORE: Seattle Police Give Smokers a Guide to Washington’s New Marijuana Law)

The Seattle police, however, were giving those not as restrained as Holmes a wide berth. As 12:01 a.m. on Thursday morning–the hour of legalization–approached, an e-mail was sent to all officers and posted on the department’s web site stating that  “officers shall not take any enforcement action–other than to issue a verbal warning” if they see people smoking pot in public. (The new law allows for a $50 fine if public smoking is observed by law enforcement.) At the Seattle Center fountain, where an evening smoke-in was called by certain not-quite-on-script activists, about 150 people could be found taking full advantage of the new freedoms that suddenly make Washington State more liberal on marijuana than just about anywhere else in the world.

Orange embers glowing in the dark all around him, Jared Allaway, 30, who works for an aerospace manufacturer, held a sign that read “Marijuana Is Safer Than Alcohol,” pulled hard on his joint, and said he has a message for politicians wondering how to react: “You represent us, and we all voted for legalization.” Nearby, Breanna Smith, 20, munched on an open bag of Chex Mix and declared the whole scene “kinda cool.”

A few steps away, inside a clutch of people smoking an incredibly thick joint made from a strain called Maui Wowie–recommended to this reporter as “citrusy, lemony sativa, very cerebral”–Eric Widener, 26, said: “I walk thanks to marijuana.” He broke his back playing football in high school, he said, and pot lets him stay mobile without the side effects of traditional pain-killers.

(MORE: Marijuana, Market Forces and Why Colorado’s New Pot Law Could Actually Be a Black-Market Boon)

Washington State has had a medical marijuana law on the books since 1998, but there have been challenges in ironing out all the legal wrinkles that law created, given the drug’s general illegality. Now, medical marijuana users in the crowd said, things may be clearer. Bre Harvey, a 20-year-old office administrator who said she injured her back in a recent car accident, was relieved that she can now “smoke my medicine legally”–though she added that she voted against the initiative because she thinks its provisions for giving DUIs to people found operating a vehicle while high are too vague.

Still, Harvey sees the new law as progress. “A lot of my friends are addicted to pills,” she said. “I’d rather smoke weed.”

The federal government hasn’t spelled out how it intends to respond to Washington’s legalization initiative, or to a similar one passed by voters in Colorado that hasn’t yet taken effect. In a statement, the U.S. attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan, said the department is “reviewing” the matter and that that the Justice Department’s responsibility to enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act, which sees marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug and as dangerous as heroin, “remains unchanged.”

Durkan also reminded Washington State citizens that “regardless of any state law… growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” and she advised people to keep in mind that there are federal properties in Washington State–for example, “federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations, and courthouses.”

(MORE: Marijuana in Colorado: Ready for Business, Complete with Regulations)

Part of the unique situation now unfolding here is that while under state law it is still illegal for citizens to sell pot, it is no longer illegal for them to buy or possess it. This odd paradox is set to be resolved when, after a year of planning provided for by the just-passed initiative, the state unveils its own sales and distribution apparatus. It’s estimated this coming tax-and-regulate scheme could bring in $1.9 billion from pot-sale taxes over the first five years, and some of that money will be spent, as required by the initiative, on public drug education campaigns and science-based research into marijuana’s effects.

Until then, however, the illegal distribution system–which Drug War-reform advocates say mainly helps line the pockets of drug dealers while harming minority communities–is likely to remain.

No matter how this ultimately sorts out, Washington State will be watched closely.

At the Seattle Center on Thursday night, a young couple visiting from Michigan said they had noticed the heavy scent of pot in the air and wondered what was up. When it was explained, they smiled approvingly.

“We just decriminalized it in our city,” Joe Markham, 25, said, speaking of a measure that passed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in November and took marijuana possession down from a misdemeanor to just a civil infraction punishable by a small fine.

“I think Washington is the future for the rest of America.”

Eli Sanders is the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He is an associate editor at The Stranger. His web site is http://www.elisanders.net.
MORE: From Mexico to Moscow, the World Turns On to U.S. Marijuana Legalization

15 comments
LarryDahlberg
LarryDahlberg

The voters of Washington passed the pot law and with that said if people don't think pot is a gateway drug just go to an NA meeting. Most will say they started with booze and pot as I did. Very few people just smoke pot and if they do give it some time they will try something else. I was born and raised in Edmonds Washington and wanted to move back but not now. What has happened to the state I loved so much. I'm embarrassed to say the last thing I watch on TV was Drug Inc a documentary about The drug use in Seattle. Very sad. I'm not judging anyone for what they do but at 62 years of age and 44 years of drug use I can say what drug I tried first and it was pot.

bonedaddy1959
bonedaddy1959

Now if we can just keep the Religious right wingers from trying to dictate every aspect of our lives including getting high on pot this law should stay on the books, and police can deal with real crime ,plus the city can put that money to good use instead of choking up the justice system with simple possession  cases.

TerrencePositiveNelson
TerrencePositiveNelson

Why are we afraid to be forward thinkers while at the same time being hypocrites? To smoke or not to smoke cannabis is a personal adult decision, just like to drink alcohol or use real drugs, pharmaceuticals and illegals. Tax payers have no choice in paying for incarcerations, trials, surveillance, and monitoring of "drug' law offenders. Maybe there is wisdom in using tax revenues to educate, rehabilitate, and provide alternatives to loitering such as sports, performing arts, arts, and other talent developement facities and programs.  On a side note, regarding marijuana lowering sperm count, lol, maybe somebody need to tell that to the Rastaman! Bob Marley has quite a few offsprings, as do most Rasses! Lol!!! "Positive Is How I Live" . Bless.

Belarusa
Belarusa

Many people say that pot isn't addictive, but when you see how hard the liberals and the hippies fought to get this crap legalized one has to wonder, I mean anything can be addictive and denial is the first sign of addiction, just sayin'.... Many people say pot is harmless and then compare it to smoking cigarettes as if inhaling one type of crap into your lungs is way better than inhaling another type of crap into your lungs. The reality is that we don't know exactly what pot can do, studies have linked pot use to many beneficial effects concerning a variety of maladies while at the same time pot use has been linked to dire consequences such as lower IQ's and sperm count over time, and can cause or contribute to the development of illnesses such as heart disease, bipolar disorder, depression, mood swings or schizophrenia. But guess what?! The people that fought so hard for their right to get stoned out of their gourds (because it's not addictive) get to be our voluntary test subjects! Congratulations, I can't WAIT to see what you people look like in forty years. Remember, whatever happens is nobody's fault but your own.

333maxwell
333maxwell

Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would both be rolling in their graves right now.. heh..And yet here was a dangerous narcotic (all sarcasm intended) that leads to heroin use(they said), now being legalized, and adults would now able to make their own choices about something so so so silly as smoking or not marijuana without fear of getting their doors kicked in and their property confiscated and their selves tossed in jail, their kids taken away, etc etc.. ......

The day of legalization came and went, the world kept spinning and 'anti climactic' would be 'too kind' of descriptive.

rogerdpack
rogerdpack

So does smoking pot typically lead to experimentation with "harder" drugs?

MelPol
MelPol

Twenty million Marijuana users have spent months in jail; many have been given long prison sentences and had their employment possibilities ended. Decriminalizing the weed would cause massive pink slips issued to the brave and honest cops who stop and frisk pot smoking youngsters. Three hundred thousand hard working law enforcement officers would lose their jobs due to legalization, but they should be the first hired helping disadvantaged minorities get back on track.

JoeyIsmail
JoeyIsmail

@Belarusa First of all this isn't a partisan issue, I'm a life long conservative as are most of my friends, I don't know anyone under the age of 60 who supports our asinine war on pot. We have this thing called "science", we aren't talking about some new substance. Marijuana has been used for thousands of years. If there were any of your silly dire consequences to be found we would have seen them. Tens of millions of people smoke marijuana. It is the only nontoxic drug found on planet earth, it is thousands of times safer than either alcohol or tobacco, and we have wasted trillions of dollars fighting only to achieve nothing. It is still everywhere, just as its always been, just as it will always be. If it's none of the government's business if you have some wine, drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, take Advil, or sip on some coffee, then how on earth would it be any of the governments business if you smoke a joint? We are talking about a natural herb, not some deadly pill cooked up in a lab. Add that to the numerous medical benefits, the astronomical cost of the drug war, the rise of the cartels, and the imprisonment of millions of regular people, and the erosion of our basic rights....it's a no brainer. There isn't a single reason marijuana SHOULD be illegal, and frankly, there never has been.

TerrencePositiveNelson
TerrencePositiveNelson

@rogerdpack No. Usually, because of its low risks, commonolity, and accessibility,  it is a first rung in the ladder of someone on their way up to the drug chain. It can be argued whether or not cannnabis unaltered is a drug. Shucks,... food, sex, tv, movies, games, etc...., all alters mood. I can agree that any smoke going into one's lungs cannot be safer than no smoke however science has yet to prove any chronic or acute ailment to the use of the cannabis plant. The gateway excuse is "nonsense" ! Ask the Rastaman, the Indian, Ancient Khemet. ;-)  One Love.

jrtucke
jrtucke

@rogerdpack I don't believe there is any scientific evidence linking marijuana use to experimentation with harder drugs. However, many individuals currently selling marijuana also sell "harder drugs." Because these drugs are more profitable, dealers who have diversified their portfolio will always try to push harder drugs onto their marijuana customers. Taking marijuana off the black market is one way to solve this problem. 

Serj94
Serj94

@rogerdpack Smoking pot is harmless unlike cigarettes, which lead to all forms of cancer and in my opinion, a bad odor!

Jdizzyy
Jdizzyy

@rogerdpack No. Cannabis is not chemically addictive... Unlike Alcohol, which is chemically addictive, is toxic, and is far more dangeorus for you than cannabis, yet is legal for anyone over 21.

tonySEA
tonySEA

@MelPol Where are these numbers coming from? I think these hard working officers will continue to work, just not enforcing laws that are counter-intuitive. If anything, the 1.9billion in new tax revenue from the legal sale of marijuana could actually increase the size of the police force!

HarrisonGreeley
HarrisonGreeley

Beautifully illustrated. Hope Belarusa takes a minute and actually reads your comment.

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