When Initiative 502 goes into effect on Dec. 6, businesses and institutions in Washington state will be making changes in their policies regarding marijuana.
Bellingham Police Chief Mark Young said city police are currently working out a plan on how to enforce the initiative, and are unable to comment on it. Seattle Police, however, have already established their own guidelines under the new law, and it is available to citizens on their website.
After raids on three Bellingham marijuana collectives as recently as last March, the non-profit gardens are tentatively hopeful the legalization of recreational marijuana use will deter the police from future raids.
“Right now even the medical cannabis law states that we just have an affirmative defense,” said Gus Gunther, a volunteer at the Northern Cross Collective on Cornwall Avenue.
The affirmative defense means under Washington’s medical marijuana law, police can arrest and charge medical marijuana patients, growers and collective operators, but if they are verified as medical patients in court, they have a legitimate legal defense against the charges.
“Now we have this other law [I-502], that is a blanket law that we fall into and have other rights,” Gunther said, “I think it will end up easing off some of the pressure — they’re going to have a lot more to deal with outside of the medical community.”
Even after Dec. 6, medical marijuana dispensaries will be the only place to legally purchase pot until the Washington State Liquor Control Board establishes a system to regulate the legal sale and growing of the plant, no later than Dec. 1, 2013. Until then, distribution and production of recreational pot will stay illegal, but possession of an ounce or less by people older than 21 will be legal.
“We see in the Superior Court many instances of the medical marijuana statute being used inappropriately, and so we may see less of that simply because they have another option,” said Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder.
The most visible changes in Washington will come in late 2013 or early 2014, said Roger Roffman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and author of the forthcoming book “A Marijuana Memoir.”
“We’ll see stores being established that exclusively sell marijuana or marijuana products,” Roffman said. “They’ll be like the old Washington State Liquor Control Board liquor stores before the voters changed that law, with the exception that stores will be privately owned rather than owned by the state of Washington.”
The stores will be privately owned and run by retailers who have applied for and been granted licenses. They cannot be located near schools or playgrounds. Retailers are limited to one sign outside, no bigger than 1,600 square inches, or about a square meter.
“The initiative really took that issue to heart and said we want tight regulations on advertising, particularly to avoid marketing targeting young people,” Roffman said.
It remains unclear how a legal growing and distribution system will affect marijuana prices. With Washington state taxing the industry 25 percent at every level, that is, a 25 percent tax for growers, the same tax for processors and the same tax for retailers. The price of marijuana could change dramatically from current standards at legal retailers, medical dispensaries and black market pot dealers.
The Office of Financial Management estimated in their impact statement 100 producer licenses, 55 processor licenses and 328 retail locations, said Mikhail Carpenter of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. That value will decrease or increase based on a variety of factors.
The tax revenue from legal marijuana is estimated at up to $2 billion, Carpenter said.
Because nobody has dealth with a system like this before, estimating a lot of things will be difficult, Carpenter said.
Carpenter expects the Liquor Control Board to take all of 2013 to finish designing the growth and sales system. Though they will try to learn from current examples of legalization, such as Amsterdam’s marijuana laws, no law like Washington’s exists anywhere yet. The board is building from scratch.
Smoking marijuana won’t be allowed in places where tobacco smoking is prohibited, such as in bars and many buildings. The wording in the initiative states that containers holding marijuana cannot be opened in the view of the public.
The Cobra Lounge, a hookah-smoking establishment in Bellingham and Tacoma, has found their own way around laws against indoor smoking.
“You can be a private club and you can smoke indoors,” said Justin Herrmann, manager and co-owner of the Cobra Lounge. “That’s why we charge the $5 membership for each person who comes in, and we always have to sell our shisha away from where we smoke it.”
Though the Cobra Lounge has no plans to change to allow marijuana smoking, the owners are acceptant of the idea.
“Personally, I love the style of an artistic city like Amsterdam. Public discourse, creativity and community building all happen in a very real way within its cafes,” said Erin Cobb, co-owner of the Cobra Lounge, in an email. “The more time people spend face to face, talking about the issues in the community, the better, and The Cobra Lounge is the perfect place for that. If we are given the chance legally, I would love to have [marijuana] Volcanoes available for the use of our members.”
Perhaps the most significant and intangible change will be how the culture in Washington changes after marijuana becomes legal and openly sold.
Roffman said he would be surprised if there wasn't an increase in experimental drug use among people that haven't tried it before after the initiative is fully implemented a year from now.
“And then I think over time, and it may take some months, some years, I think that new norms will develop, as to what’s cool and what’s not cool,” Roffman said.
Though Gunther dislikes portions of the initiative, especially the DUI conditions, he likes the step Washington voters made.
“I think it will be good for us because it’s putting another step in the right direction for everyone socially to accept it,” Gunther said.
The initiative’s impaired driving portion, also effective Dec. 6, establishes a 5 ng/mL THC concentration in a driver’s blood as the legal limit for DUI, similar to the 0.08 blood-alcohol content standard for alcohol. A DUI is a gross misdemeanor, but can change to a felony if you have prior DUI convictions. This part of the bill has raised issues with many medical marijuana patients who claim their blood is almost always above the 5 ng/mL level, and needs to be to recieve proper medication. This is expected to increase felony DUI charges, Gunther said.