SEATTLE -- People openly lit joints under the Space Needle and on sidewalks -- then blew the smoke at TV news cameras. To those looking to "get baked," the city's police department suggested pizza and a "Lord of the Rings" movie marathon. What, exactly, is going on in Washington state?
Marijuana possession became legal under state law yesterday, the day a measure approved by voters to regulate marijuana like alcohol took effect. It prompted midnight celebrations from pot activists who say the war on drugs has failed.
But as the dawn of legalization arrives, Washington and Colorado, where a similar law passed last month, face some complicated dilemmas:
How do you go about creating a functioning, legal weed market? How do you ensure adults the freedom to use pot responsibly, or not so responsibly, while keeping it away from teens? And will the Justice Department just stand by while the states issue licenses to the growers, processors and sellers of a substance that, under federal law, remains very much illegal?
Regulation tricky"We're building this from the ground all the way up," said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington Liquor Control Board, which is charged with regulating the drug. "The initiative didn't just wave a magic wand and make everybody here an expert on marijuana."
The measures approved Nov. 6 have two main facets. First, they OK the possession of up to an ounce by adults at least 21. That took effect in Washington, though it remains illegal -- for now -- to sell pot, so people have to keep getting it from the marijuana fairy.
In Colorado, where pot fans will even be able to grow their own plants, the law takes effect by Jan. 5.
The regulatory part of the measures is trickier. Washington's Liquor Control Board, which has been regulating alcohol for 78 years, has a year to adopt rules for the fledgling pot industry: How many growers, processors and stores should there be in each county? Should there be limits on potency? How should the pot be inspected, packaged and labeled?
To help answer those questions, experts in the field will be consulted, including police, public policy experts and some of the state's many purveyors of medical marijuana. Smith anticipates undercover monitoring operations to make sure the private, state-licensed stores aren't selling to minors.
With legalization, officials need to look at some of the measures that have been shown to reduce teen drinking, said Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. That includes education about the risks of pot use and driving while stoned, and encouraging cities to adopt laws that hold parents accountable if they host parties with kids provided marijuana.
Federal response uncertain"We're really going to need to get all hands on deck to sort through this," Franklin said.
The marijuana will be taxed heavily, with revenues possibly reaching hundreds of millions a year for schools, health care, basic government services and substance abuse prevention.
Unless, of course, the Justice Department has something to say about it. The federal government would remain free to raid state-licensed growers or stores and prosecute those involved in federal court, just as they remain free to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws.
Whether a state can regulate an illegal substance is another question. Many law scholars say the answer is no: Washington and Colorado's regulatory schemes obviously conflict with pot's prohibition in the federal Controlled Substances Act, and when state and federal laws conflict, the feds win out, they say.
So the Justice Department could sue to block the regulatory schemes. But will it?