Marijuana users celebrate legalization in Washington state (+video)
Though the law does not allow pot smoking in public, that didn't stop users from gathering near Seattle's iconic Space Needle. Though it is now legal to possess marijuana in Washington under state law, possession remains a federal crime.
Washington state made history on Thursday as the first in the nation to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, an occasion celebrated by dozens of users near Seattle's famed Space Needle amid blaring reggae music and a haze of pot smoke.Skip to next paragraph
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The pre-dawn public gathering defied a key provision of the state's landmark marijuana law, which allows possession of small amounts of marijuana but forbids users from lighting up outside the privacy of their homes.
The gathering also underscored mixed law enforcement messages about the statute. Hours earlier, Seattle's city attorney issued a stern warning that public pot puffing would not be tolerated and violators faced citations with $100 fines.
But the prosecutor's admonition was contradicted by the Seattle Police Department's own instructions to officers to limit their enforcement actions to warnings, at least for now.
The new law, passed by voters last month in a move that could set the state up for a showdown with the federal government, removes criminal sanctions for anyone 21 or older possessing 1 ounce (28.5 grams) or less of pot for personal use.
Colorado voters also chose to legalize pot for personal recreational use, but that measure is not due to take effect until next month. Both states are among 18 that have already removed criminal sanctions for medical use of marijuana.
The Washington law legalizes possession of up to 16 ounces (0.45 kg) of solid cannabis-infused goods - like brownies or cookies - and up to 72 ounces (2.4 kg) of weed in liquid form.
But driving under the influence of cannabis or imbibing in public places where the consumption of alcohol is already banned remain illegal.
"If you're smoking in plain public view, you're subject to a ticket," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes told a news conference on Wednesday. "If drinking in public is disallowed, so is smoking marijuana in public."
'Victory for hemp'
The new law ultimately will permit cannabis to be legally sold and taxed at state-licensed stores in a system to be modeled after those in many states for alcohol sales. The state Liquor Control Board, along with agriculture and public health officials, have until next December to set up such a system.
For now, it remains a crime to sell, cultivate or even share one's own stash, even though the law allows individuals to purchase a limited amount for personal possession.
Ironically, an early court challenge of the law came from a medical marijuana patient in Olympia, who filed suit last week seeking to block enforcement of a new standard for marijuana impairment while driving, similar to the blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving.
The plaintiff, Arthur West, says the new legal limit - 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood of THC, pot's active ingredient - would unfairly subject him to prosecution for a THC level at which he routinely drives without impairment. A hearing on his request for an injunction was set for Friday.
Little if any of the law's fine points seemed to matter to the mellow and largely middle-aged gathering of about 100 people near the foot of the Space Needle as the statute took effect at midnight.