Washington state’s law to legalize and regulate marijuana goes into effect today. While dispensaries won’t be licensed to sell for at least another year, today marks the first day when possession of an ounce or less of marijuana becomes legal for those 21 and older – under state law, that is. Here are five things you should know as the state begins implementation of the law.
1. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The federal Controlled Substances Act makes marijuana illegal, and while the Obama administration has said little to clarify how it will react to the passage of this law and a similar one in Colorado, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle did issue a statement Wednesday evening clarifying that, by their law, possessing and selling pot is still a crime:
The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The Department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither States nor the Executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6th in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
2. It is still illegal to smoke or consume marijuana in public, but it’s not a state crime. As Washington’s law went into effect at 12:01 this morning, crowds gathered around the Seattle Space Needle to light up. But don’t be fooled; the act of smoking in public is not legal. I-502 provides that it is unlawful to “open a package” or “consume” a “product containing marijuana, useable marijuana, or a marijuana-infused product in view of the general public.” The penalty for violating this provision, however, is a civil fine of about $100.
3. Don’t bring your pot to national parks or federal courthouses. While smoking marijuana in public places is generally only subject to a fine, the consequences may be much harsher if you do so on federal property. In its statement Wednesday night, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle reminds members of the public that “it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations, and courthouses.” Of course, the federal government’s reminder also means that smoking in public anywhere, really, could get you in bigger trouble if federal prosecutors choose to change their prosecution tactics and charge you under federal law. Historically, however, federal prosecutors almost never target mere possession of small amounts of marijuana, and it would be a colossal and burdensome misuse of their resources if they were to start now.
4. As of today, there is no legal way to distribute pot. While I-502 does contain a scheme for regulating marijuana production and sales through licensing dispensaries, those regulations don’t go into effect until late next year, after which interested dispensaries will have to first go through the application process. If implementation of the medical marijuana laws in many states is any indication, getting dispensaries up and running will take several years. And without licensed dispensaries, there is no legal way to sell — or even give away – marijuana.
5. Today marks the beginning of the end of harsh and discriminatory criminalization of minor marijuana offenses in Washington state. As revelrous pot-smokers celebrate their newfound liberty to consume marijuana, it’s easy to forget many of the primary reasons the law’s drafters proposed the law: marijuana laws disproportionately target racial minorities, fill our jails with nonviolent individuals who then become embroiled in the criminal justice system, and funnel illicit funds to violent gangs. As Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes explained to ThinkProgress earlier this year:
Prohibition has failed in every legitimate public safety goal. … 59% of the [marijuana] cases that were pending when I took office on Jan. 1, 2010, were against African Americans. That in a city with a 7% African American population. The only achievement if you will of marijuana prohibition in this case has been to make sure that we become the number one jailer nation on the planet, and it’s only made certain that only criminals are getting wealthy from the sale of marijuana.