LOS ANGELES – Pot smokers lit up in Washington state on Thursday as recreational marijuana became legal in a historic first for the United States, clouded by the fact that federal law still bans the practice.
Midnight pot parties were reported across the state as a new law came into force following a Nov. 6 referendum to legalize private consumption of marijuana for recreational use.
Some 200 people gathered at midnight outside Seattle’s appropriately named Space Needle, a futuristic tower that dominates the skyline, to light up and celebrate their newfound freedom.
“You can smoke and not feel like a criminal. It’s really no different than having a beer or something. In fact, I think it’s less dangerous,” Calvin Lee told the local KIRO 7 television station.
The law made it legal for those over 21 to possess and use up to 1 ounce (28 grams) of marijuana. A number of U.S. states have already legalized pot for medicinal purposes, but Washington is the first allowing it for pleasure.
Colorado residents approved a similar law last month, on the same day President Barack Obama was re-elected, but its pot lovers will have to wait until Jan. 5 to light up with impunity.
But even while Washington’s marijuana fans partied, the limits of the new law were underlined. The Space Needle gathering was technically illegal, since the new law allows only private, not public, consumption of weed.
Officers took no action, and the Seattle Police Department said that for the moment it will only issue verbal warnings, even though in theory they could impose $50 fines on those smoking marijuana in public.
Police drew praise for a blog — which became an instant hit — taking a light-hearted approach to explaining exactly what is and isn’t legal under the new law. The “Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle” includes a link to a “Lord of the Rings” video clip entitled “The Finest Weed,” showing wizard Gandalf blowing meditative smoke rings with Bilbo Baggins.
“In keeping with the spirit of (the new law), 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,” wrote the police blogger.
“Does this mean you should flagrantly roll up a megaspliff and light up in the middle of the street? No. 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.”
More broadly, the new Washington and Colorado laws run counter to U.S. federal law, which still bans recreational use of marijuana across the country. “Regardless of any changes in state law growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” noted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.
Entrepreneurs are already eyeing the lucrative business opportunities provided by the advent of legal marijuana. Some people have already dubbed them “ganja-preneurs.”
“We’re focused on baby boomers —basically wealthy baby boomers,” Jamen Shiveley, a former Microsoft executive who hopes to open as many as a couple of dozen pot shops, told the King5 television station. “It’s a $100 billion industry in search of a brand. Never in the history of capitalism — forget America, in the world — has such a giant vacuum existed.”
The state’s financial chiefs are already rubbing their hands at the prospect of 25 percent tax revenues levied on legally sold marijuana, money which previously stayed strictly in the underground economy.
Washington’s neighbor, Oregon, also held a referendum on legalizing recreational marijuana Nov. 6, but its residents rejected the proposal.
Hundreds of same-sex couples across Washington state started picking up marriage licenses Thursday as a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage took effect.
King County, the state’s biggest county, opened the doors to its auditor’s office in Seattle just after midnight to start distributing marriage licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the downtown Seattle building on a chilly December night. By Thursday afternoon, about 450 licenses had been issued in Seattle.
Last month, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote.
They joined six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — and the District of Columbia that had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election results of Referendum 74 on Wednesday afternoon, and the law took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.