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
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