Gary Parrish smokes marijuana in a glass pipe at the Space Needle in Seattle… (Ted S. Warren / Associated…)
SEATTLE -- More than 100 hard-core tokers gathered under the Space Needle at the stroke of midnight Wednesday night to light one up in celebration of Washington state’s new marijuana law, which makes it legal for those 21 and older to possess an ounce or less of pot.
Voters in Washington and Colorado approved the nation’s first recreational marijuana laws in November, and though Colorado’s doesn’t take effect until January, the Washington initiative allows pot possession as of Thursday — though it’s still illegal for the moment to buy, sell or grow marijuana.
And smoking publicly remains against the law. That didn't stop the bandanna-clad crew puffing on pipes and joints under a chilly night sky early Thursday, and it appeared the Seattle Police Department was not in the mood to arrest anyone on a night most seemed to take as celebratory.
"The Dude abides, and says, 'Take it inside!' " the SPD posted on its police blotter, under a photo of Jeff Bridges as "The Big Lebowski."
The department issued a bulletin to officers directing them "until further notice" to take no enforcement action, other than a verbal warning, against those violating the new law, known as Initiative 502.
"We had a city ordinance prior to this that said marijuana enforcement was our lowest enforcement priority," police department spokesman Jeff Kappel told the Los Angeles Times.
The state’s Liquor Control Board, tasked with setting up regulations to carry out the law, will over the next year draft a framework for licensing growers, handlers and retailers that initiative supporters hope will put black market drug dealers out of business.
The state's existing medical marijuana law remains unchanged.
"I think we have some ability to use our experience in regulating liquor, which is to me a similar public safety kind of product," the control board’s administrative director, Pat Kohler, said in an interview. "You want to ensure it doesn’t get in the hands of minors, and you want to make sure it doesn’t get in the wrong hands, where it can be used improperly."
State officials believe the hefty taxation on state-produced marijuana called for under the law could bring in $2 billion over the next five years.
Still unclear is what move may be next from the federal government, which still considers marijuana possession a felony.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle issued a warning from the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday that said it was taking its enforcement responsibility seriously.
"The department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," the statement said. "Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law."
Likewise, it said, bringing pot onto any federal property, including national parks and forests, military installations and courthouses, would continue to be a poor idea.