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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Marijuana Use Becomes Legal This Week But Many Questions Remain

Martha Koester
Amy Radil

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has been a longtime supporter of legalizing marijuana. But when he was elected in 2009, he said he never would have imagined that his goal would be achieved so quickly. This week Initiative 502 takes effect, or at least the part of it that allows people to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

Some fans of the law have proposed a “smoke-in” at Seattle Center. Holmes said people should celebrate the new law, for lots of reasons. Just not by smoking pot in public.

“I think that they should acknowledge this newfound right," he said. "I think they should celebrate in the privacy of their homes if they choose to do so. And be thankful that we’re no longer arresting some 10,000 Washingtonians a year in the state of Washington and spending well over $100 million in law enforcement resources on that. And especially be grateful for lessening the racially disproportionate impact that these crazy drug laws have on our communities of color.”

But the new law still poses some challenges for people who want to embrace it. They can possess marijuana legally, they just can’t buy or sell it.

Martha Koester is a retired chemist living in southwest Seattle. Koester says she was glad when Initiative 502 passed – she’d like to try smoking marijuana for her insomnia. And she’d be happy to buy it in the state-licensed stores that are envisioned by the passage of the new law. That way she’ll know what she’s buying is pure, not like the stuff she smoked growing up.

“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,’” she said. “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 said her condition doesn’t meet the standard for medical marijuana. So she’s holding off for now. “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,” she said.

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. “Two things you can’t do,” he said.  “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.”

“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,” he said.

Satterberg said federal authorities will likely seek an injunction, bringing the licensing process to “a grinding halt.”

Pete Holmes is hopeful that a confrontation can be avoided.  He said a federal injunction is conceivable. But he’s hoping that this first year can be used to reach a solution outside the courts.  “That’s another reason why I think the one-year rulemaking period, even though it creates a one-year gap between the supply side and the right to possess marijuana,” Holmes said. “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.

Year started with KUOW: 2005