Hundreds of marijuana enthusiasts huddled near Seattle’s famed Space Needle tower on Thursday night with pipes, bongs and hand-rolled joints to celebrate Washington’s new status as the first state in the US to legalize pot for adult recreational use.
The public gathering at the downtown Seattle Center, like a smaller turnout at a nearby spot hours earlier, defied a key provision of the state’s landmark marijuana law, which allows possession of small amounts of cannabis, but forbids users from lighting up outside the privacy of their homes.
Police kept their distance from both gatherings, underscoring mixed law enforcement messages about the new statute, known by its ballot designation as Initiative 502. The measure took effect on Thursday.
Seattle’s city attorney issued a stern warning on Wednesday that public pot puffing would not be tolerated and that violators faced citations with US$100 fines.
However, the Seattle Police Department said its officers had been directed to limit any enforcement actions related to Initiative 502 to verbal warnings only, 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 (28.5g) or less of pot for personal use.
Colorado voters likewise 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 also legalizes possession of up to 16 ounces (0.45kg) of solid cannabis-infused goods and up to 72 ounces (2.1 liters) of weed in liquid form.
However, driving under the influence of cannabis or consuming it in public places where the consumption of alcohol is already banned remain illegal.
The new law will ultimately 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.
Little if any of the law’s fine points seemed to matter to the mellow group of about 300 people — from college-age tokers to middle-aged Baby Boomers — who assembled at the Seattle Center fountain, a short distance from the Space Needle.
Convivial laughter, laid-back conversation and occasional coughing filled the air as the pungent smell of marijuana wafted through the crowd, many wearing sweatshirt hoodies to ward off the chill, on a cold, crisp evening.
Carrying a sign, “marijuana is safer than alcohol,” Jared Allaway, 30, described the night as “iconic.”
“Seattle’s always been friendly to cannabis,” Allaway said. “Hopefully this will spread to eastern Washington. You get outside of Seattle, it’s a different world.”