First day of legal marijuana is quiet in Washington state

The (Tacoma) News TribuneDecember 7, 2012 

— Day 1 of legalized marijuana passed with barely a ripple in the South Sound.

There was no uptick Thursday in traffic accidents by stoned drivers, no run on Doritos or banana ice cream at Safeway stores; no public displays of stoner joy like the “Smoke-ins” crowds that lit up the night at the Seattle Center.

For the authors of Initiative 502, the marijuana legalization measure voters approved last month, that was just as well.

Celebrating marijuana was never the intention, said Alison Holcomb, the ACLU attorney who ran the successful I-502 campaign. The intent was replacing “a failed prohibition model” with a thoughtful and humane new public policy, Holcomb said. That, she said, is serious business.

Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum said his bosses have written no new policies or guidelines for officers with regard to the changed law.

Thanks to a citywide initiative in 2011, marijuana possession by adults already was Tacoma’s lowest law enforcement priority. That’s been the case in Seattle since 2003. Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said much the same thing.

Deputies don’t target pot offenses now, he said, and I-502 won’t change that. The enforcement priorities will continue to focus on people cultivating and selling marijuana illegally. “We’re not going to do anything more,” Troyer said. “We not going to do anything less.”

Seattle police struck a lighter tone with regard to public use of marijuana, which remains illegal under the new law. For a while at least, officers will let people off with verbal warnings for public use, police Jonah Spangethal-Lee said.

That policy was clearly in effect Thursday, as crowds of pot smokers at the Seattle Center openly lit up and blew smoke at television news cameras, first at a gathering shortly after midnight when the law officially took effect and again in the evening.

“The department’s going to give you a generous grace period to help you adjust to this brave, new, and maybe kinda stoned world we live in,” Spangethal-Lee wrote on the SPD Blotter.

“Does this mean you should flagrantly roll up a mega-spliff and light up in the middle of the street? No. If you’re smoking pot in public, officers will be giving helpful reminders to folks about the rules and regulations under I-502 (like not smoking pot in public).

“But the police department believes that, under state law, you may responsibly get baked, order some pizzas and enjoy a ‘Lord of the Rings’ marathon in the privacy of your own home, if you want to.”

Clyde Phillips, 84, a retired narcotics agent who moved to Washington from California four years ago, held his own quiet celebration Thursday at his home in the Lacey area.

“I just had a couple of tokes a couple of minutes ago, and I’m feeling very relaxed, I’ll tell you,” Phillips said about 11:30 a.m. on the big day.

In a reflective mood, Phillips recalled the early days of drug enforcement.

“People would say you take just one puff of marijuana and you’re going to get addicted,” he said. “That just wasn’t true.”

And Phillips remembered with regret the many marijuana offenders he helped convict and send to jail, some for possession of as little as a single joint.

“In one case, we vacuumed a guy’s car and found just two or three seeds,” he said. “That was enough to put him in jail.”

At Tacoma’s medical marijuana dispensaries, there was little cause for celebration Thursday. Many medical marijuana suppliers actively opposed I-502, recognizing that, once the new state-licensed stores are up and running, they could be out of business.

Some dispensary owners said non-patients hoping to buy marijuana either called or showed up at the stores Thursday, but that’s been the case since since I-502 passed on Nov. 6, they noted.

“There was one guy waiting at the door when I got here this morning,” said a volunteer who identified himself as Ryno at Tacoma’s Sacred Plant Medicine dispensary on Center Street. “There are always the hopeful ones.”

“We always just tell them politely that if they have a medical need for it, they can get an authorization and come back.”

The new law did not change the status quo with regard to medical marijuana.

As a sign taped to the front door of Sacred Plant Medicine put it: “We will not open to the general public even though I-502 has been passed. We will remain a medical only facility.” The state Liquor Control Board, which is creating the framework for the state’s new cannabis industry, announced late Wednesday that it has started the first phase of the rule-making process.

The first step will establish rules for growers, or “marijuana producers,” a process the board says will involve public hearings on the east and west sides of the state. “During this stage of the rule-making process the board is seeking public comment and input on how the public thinks the license should work and what type of regulations should come with it,” according to the board’s announcement.

According to a tentative time line, the board intends to have rules for marijuana growers completed by May 18.

Similar processes will be followed for “marijuana processors” and marijuana retailers’ specified in the new law. The board has not announced time lines for those categories.

Reach Rob Carson at rob.carson@thenewstribune.com.

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