A strange gap year in Washington’s grand experiment with marijuana legalization begins Thursday, when personal possession of pot becomes legal, but criminal laws banning marijuana growing and sales remain in effect.
That year gives the state Liquor Control Board time to create first-in-the-nation licenses for marijuana growers, processors and retailers. Until then, the only clearly legal way — at least, under state law — is for a medical marijuana patient to get medicine from a collective garden.
Jenny Durkan, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, sent out a statement Wednesday that regardless of legalization measures in Washington and Colorado, the federal ban on marijuana remains unchanged. But the statement did not come with any legal action by the U.S. Department of Justice to block the new law from taking effect on Thursday.
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. Members of the public are also advised to remember 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.
At a morning news conference, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes acknowledged that Washington is in uncharted waters.
“We are trying to substitute a legal, licensed system for what is nearly a wholly illegal system. That is going to take time. What we’re doing under I-502, beginning at midnight, we’re at least not doing any more harm. We’re not enforcing an extremely unpopular law against adults who choose to consume marijuana. But unless they are an authorized medical marijuana patient, they are already obtaining marijuana from illegal sources. Washington state is awash, as are most states, in marijuana, which is one of the points about what prohibition has failed in its purpose.”
A public celebration of the new law is planned at Seattle Center, beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Holmes reminded party-goers that public consumption of marijuana is now treated like alcohol, equivalent to about a $50 fine.
Holmes stopped enforcing marijuana possession cases when he took office, but he said Thursday he would enforce public consumption fines, should Seattle police issue them.
“I think the SPD will see how well people comply. If there’s unfortunate flaunting, and (people) want to test and see if the law will be enforced, well, I have better things to do with my time than to test the limits of the law. But we will enforce the law.”