Today marks the first day that recreational marijuana use becomes legal under state law. But to local government officials, interpretation of that law remains complicated.
Whitman County District Judge Doug Robinson stopped by campus recently and speculated on the consequences of Initiative 502 in an interview with the KUGR radio station and The Daily Evergreen on Friday.
“Perhaps the single biggest misconception is that Initiative-502 is not a law,” Robinson told KUGR. “The law is yet to be created...you cannot charge someone with violating the initiative, nor prosecute them under that. So right now, the initiative makes possession of marijuana legal, as of Dec. 6, with no law regarding how or when or where.”
Washington voters approved I-502 on Nov. 6, which makes the state – along with Colorado – one of the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. While the new system will be “similar to those used to control alcohol,” according to the Washington state Liquor Control Board, there are still many details on which to decide.
State officials do not have a licensing process in place for growers, processors and distributors, but they have a year to implement one. This means that while it becomes legal to possess marijuana today, there will be no legal way to buy it.
“The initiative only provides that it would be lawful for someone over the age of 21 to possess one ounce, although technically there’s no legal way to obtain that ounce....But once you have it, it’s kind of like home base, you’re covered,” Robinson said. “So it’s going to be really weird.”
Wherever a person may obtain marijuana from, they will have to be selective about where they choose to use it.
Possession of the drug in Moscow is still a criminal offense, even if it was bought legally in Washington.
“It is strictly the state law that applies, and you have no protection because you might have purchased it legally or used it legally in the state of Washington,” Robinson said.
College campuses will be off-limits, as well. WSU officials have said that marijuana will not be allowed, since allowing the substance – which remains illegal under federal law – could jeopardize federal funding.
On or off campus, students under 21 years old cannot use marijuana under the initiative. Possession of any amount of marijuana less than 40 grams will still count as a misdemeanor for those under age, and more than 40 grams is still a felony charge for anyone, said Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins.
If students are convicted of a drug-related offense, they risk losing eligibility for federal financial aid.
Users who are aged 21 and older are limited to private areas – not restaurants or on the street, for example.
Robinson compared it to state laws that make it illegal to have an open alcoholic beverage in public, but explained that he interprets the limits on marijuana as more restrictive.
“Now, if you are drinking on your front lawn, that it is okay,” Robinson told KUGR. “But, you can’t smoke a joint on your front lawn because that is in an area which is visible to the public.”
Jenkins said police plan to enforce the new marijuana regulations in the same way as alcohol, saying that an unfenced front yard is generally considered open and accessible to the public. Public use of marijuana will be considered a civil infraction, he said.
But if a user is inside a private residence, and someone complains about the smell of marijuana, Jenkins said it may become more difficult to obtain a search warrant.
“We will continue to follow up, if we can,” Jenkins said.
The initiative does not change medical marijuana laws that are currently in place, or any individual employer’s drug policies. It also does not invalidate drug convictions or arrests that occurred before the initiative went into effect.
I-502 stipulates that a 25 percent tax must be added at each level of the process of growing, processing and distributing. And consumers will also pay sales tax on the final product, so the total cost of the product will nearly double.
Robinson thinks this price increase may prove counter-productive to the initiative’s intention.
“The whole idea was that they were going to get all this tax revenue, you’re going to put the cartels out of business.” Robinson said. “I think these cartels are simply going to come in and they’re going to sell their dope for less than they were before, but they’re going to make up for it in quantity. And so there’s still going to be a black market.”