New marijuana law is still hazy

State officials are now developing new regulatory system

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Marijuana possession is now legal in Washington, but local officials say there are still many more questions than answers surrounding the implementation of this controversial ballot measure passed by voters in November.

“There’s still a lot about the new law that is pretty cloudy,” said Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey of the impacts of Initiative 502, which deals with recreational marijuana use. “People are not sure what it means and how to enforce it.”

As of Dec. 6, it became legal for adults older than 21 to possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana. And although I-502 also establishes precedent for growing, processing and retailing recreational marijuana, it provides the state’s Liquor Control Board until Dec. 1, 2013, to create the system that will ultimately regulate it. The new system would be similar to the one used to control alcohol.

“We expect that it will take the full year to craft the necessary rules which will provide the framework for the new system,” the WSLCB said in a statement. “As we develop the rules we will keep in mind our top priority, public safety.”

Local jurisdictions like Camas and Washougal are in something of a holding pattern, waiting for the law’s “minutia” to be worked out.

“We are clearly open to new information as it comes in,” said Camas Mayor Scott Higgins during a recent City Council meeting. “We are not leading the charge on this thing one way or another. We are waiting to see how this plays out and there is probably going to be a lot of waiting and seeing.”

Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell said the law represents uncharted territory for local law enforcement.

“It’s going to take a little time to get this figured out,” he said. “We are learning on the fly right now. It’s unlike anything we’ve had to deal with before. We are just taking it literally almost a day and a week at a time.”

One issue that will certainly impact Washington’s new state law is that under federal law, marijuana remains illegal. Even once state licensed distribution networks are in place, as it stands now the federal government could still raid state-licensed growers or stores and prosecute those involved in federal court.

The issue was discussed at during a recent Camas City Council meeting, when Assistant City Attorney David Schultz offered his take on some of the issues surrounding I-502.

“The federal government could potentially come in with a lawsuit to intervene,” Schultz said. “It is pure speculation what the federal government intends to do. I don’t think the federal government’s position is going to change that much. As far as what they are going to do — I have no answers for you. It is up to them. We are just going to have to adjust.”

This isn’t the first time marijuana laws have been a topic of discussion for local city councils.

The federal government’s Controlled Substance Act states that growing or possessing marijuana is illegal, no matter what the use. In September, the City Council voted to make collective medical marijuana gardens illegal within city limits. The resolution recognized the city’s existing adopted code and language requiring all permitted uses to be in compliance with local, state and federal requirements.

This was in response to state law, passed by the state legislature in 2011, which permits qualifying patients to produce, grow and deliver up to 45 cannabis plants to serve no more than 10 qualifying patients for medical use. It is an extension of an initiative passed by Washington voters in 1998 that allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Today, police are dealing with this new facet of law enforcement as it relates to recreational marijuana use. Although many questions remain, they have clarity on at least one aspect of the new law.

“What is clear is that possession of 28 grams or less of marijuana is not illegal, and officers are being trained that it is legal,” Lackey said.

According to I-502, however, use of marijuana or a marijuana infused product in view of the general public remains illegal. This infraction could get violators a ticket for $103. But right now, as this aspect of the new law becomes better understood by the general public, Camas and Washougal officers are being told to use their discretion and focus on education.

“This is the same thing we do with most of our new laws,” Lackey said. “There is a period of time where we do education — some [of those new laws] that come to mind include fireworks, cell phones, seat belts.”

Mitchell said a person 21 and older caught smoking weed in public the first time in Washougal could simply get a warning.

“We are treating it like liquor,” he said.

In the coming year, Lackey and Mitchell both said they expect many of the ambiguities to be worked out by state officials.

“The state is about to spend a ton of money on establishing this whole distribution network,” Lackey said. “Everybody is hoping that through that process things will become to more clear.”