Those who helped pass Initiative 502 (I-502), which made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana legal by people 21 years or older, saw it as a public safety and criminal justice issue. The criminalization of drug use did little to dissuade people from smoking marijuana, said I-502 campaign manager Alison Holcomb on Dec. 5, just hours before the initiative took effect.
In fact, Holcomb said, the prohibition of marijuana harmed people of color, who were disproportionately arrested and prosecuted. By ending the prohibition, Washington will no longer prosecute the thousands of possession arrests each year, freeing up the courts and law enforcement to handle other cases and creating revenue for drug prevention and treatment.
But beneath the Space Needle just after midnight on Dec. 6, the voter-approved law was all about recreation.
Despite I-502’s ban on public marijuana use, hundreds gathered to light up at the Seattle Center and celebrate the end of the prohibition on pot.
While they smoked, the Seattle Police Department took no action.
On Dec. 5, the department ordered police officers to give verbal warnings to people smoking pot in public, but no tickets.
Such is the ambiguous nature of marijuana law in Washington for at least the next year.
While possession and use of marijuana is decriminalized, its use and distribution are in a state of flux as the Washington State Liquor Control Board determines where and how to distribute the product.
Meanwhile, the state has reached out to Washington, D.C., to make sure the federal government does not interfere with legalization.
For the next year, smokers and policy wonks alike are in for a ride.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
The line between what is legal and illegal remains fuzzy for pot smokers.
And while there is no law against buying or receiving marijuana, I-502 still bans selling or even giving away any amount of marijuana.
Seattle police are not handing out infractions for public smoking, but other jurisdictions can.
Public smoking can carry a fine of $50 to $100.