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Washington Legalizes Pot: What's Changed?


When the clock struck midnight in Seattle last night, cigarette lighters sparked in unison under the Space Needle. Washington is now the first state where recreational marijuana use is legal. In Colorado, a similar law takes effect January 5. In Washington state, adults can now possess up to an ounce of pot under state law. But there's still some confusion about what's allowed. After all, the federal ban on marijuana has not gone away. Seattle police say they won't issue citations today, but they will advice people smoking in public to take their joints home. Police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee quoted the cult film "The Big Lebowski," saying, the dude abides, and says take it inside.

So if you live in Washington state, what has changed today? If you're a pot smoker, do you know what's allowed? If you are a law enforcement officer what kind of guidance do you have? And if you're a parent in Washington, what are you telling your kids? Finally, if you own a Krispy Kreme donut shop or a 7-Eleven in the state, are your sales through the roof today? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Keith Seinfeld is the assistant news director at KPLU in Seattle. He's covered this issue extensively and joins us now from a studio there. Welcome to the program.

KEITH SEINFELD, BYLINE: Thanks. Glad to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So are you just walking down the streets, smelling that herbal smell everywhere you go? Is everyone lighting up today? What's changed?

SEINFELD: Oh, yeah, so fragrant here in Seattle. But, no, it's the fragrance of rain actually.


SEINFELD: Although I'm told that near the University of Washington these days, even prior to today, that that scent has been much more pervasive than ever before.

SHAPIRO: But what's actually legal now?

SEINFELD: What's actually legal and that light up that you mentioned under the Space Needle at midnight, that wasn't legal. And that's what's kind of interesting. The law...

SHAPIRO: OK, so explain why.

SEINFELD: The law was pretty narrowly written to say it's fine to possess marijuana, that's legal, but the intention was that you're supposed to consume it in private, in your home. So you can have up to an ounce, which is quite a lot, actually, but you're not supposed to have it anywhere in public. It's not legal for you if you're under 21. It's not legal on college campuses. And I guess the most prominent thing is that it's not supposed to be legal to consume in public. It's supposed to be like the open alcoholic beverage law, which says you can't walk around with an open alcohol beverage on the sidewalk. Anything that's in plain view of the public is supposed to be illegal, and supposed to be, I guess, is the keyword today. We're still learning as we go here.

SHAPIRO: As I understand, it's legal to possess but not to buy it. Explain how that works. How do you legally obtain it if you can't buy it legally?

SEINFELD: Well, that's the exact question that I put to the ACLU's point person who wrote the initiative and that one of our reporters, Gabriel Spitzer, put to the Seattle City attorney, and everyone kind of shrugs at you. It's the way the initiative was written, which said it's legal to possess on this day, December 6, in 2012, but the system for selling it legally doesn't come online until a year from now. So it's just weird gray area. You can't sell it. That's still a felony. You can't legally acquire it anywhere. You can't even grow it in your home. That's not legal. But it's OK to have it - wink, wink. We don't know how you got it.

SHAPIRO: And we're just talking about state law. Federal law still says no how, no way, no where ever.

SEINFELD: Yeah. And that's actually the reason why the college campuses, for example, are being really firm. Every single college in the state sent out messages to students, to staff and faculty this week saying, listen up, federal law says it's still a controlled substance. We get federal money. You might be depending on a federal student loan, and therefore absolutely not anywhere on campus or any campus facilities. And Colorado is facing something similar. It's this, you know, states' rights versus federal law. And everyone's sort of waiting for what will the attorney general's office decide to do about it, or will they just kind of silently let things unfold as they may.

SHAPIRO: If you're a listener in Washington or in Colorado, where a similar law is about to go into effect, we want to hear from you - pot smokers, law enforcement officials, parents. How will this law affect you, and what are your questions? The number is 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. We're on the air in Denver, Colorado. We're on the air in Spokane, Washington. Let us know what you're hearing, what you're thinking and what your questions are.

And Keith Seinfeld of member station KPLU in Seattle is with us. Talk about what people who have smoked pot are allowed to do. Is driving under the influence of marijuana similar to driving under the influence of alcohol, according to state law?

SEINFELD: Absolutely. It always has been. But it's one of the unique pieces of the Washington State law that was passed. It's a little bit different from Colorado. I actually don't know the fine details in Colorado, but they created a new standard here in Washington for DUI. So driving under the influence of anything that impairs your driving is already illegal, but there was never a set standard for how much marijuana in your system might make you impaired. Well, this set a standard, sort of like a blood alcohol limit, this is a THC component in your bloodstream limit.

And so if you are stopped for driving under the influence and if an officer believes that you might be impaired by a drug, they can have you come in, take a sample of your blood. And if it's above a certain level, then you're automatically guilty of - it's called a per se limit, and it means if you're - it's just like a .08 alcohol level. If you're above the .08, it's - you're automatically guilty. That's a new thing, and it's been quite controversial here in Washington.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go a caller. This is Dave in Seattle. Hi, Dave. You're on the air.

DAVE: Hi. Your local correspondent there, who I hear all time on the radio, would know that in Seattle we actually voted quite a while ago to make pot enforcement a low priority. So somebody smoking on the street is kind of not uncommon. At least where I usually see it, is in the bus stops. There'll be guys, you know, quietly passing a joint and think they're being clever, like someone making a joke about munchies sales going up in Seattle.

But also, hasn't in California, for some time, the one-ounce thing has also been sort of a little priority? And I think the joke is - and I'm not a pot user, I've never even tried it - the miracle ounce. You're not - you can't legally buy it. You can't legally sell it. How did you get it? It's a miracle. And so we're kind of in that condition too. So that's it. Bye.

SHAPIRO: OK. Thanks for the call, Dave. So he points out this difference between what the books say and what law enforcement officers actually go about prosecuting. And it sounds as though he's saying in Washington, people haven't prosecuted possession of a small amount of marijuana for a very long time.

SEINFELD: Well, it's good to keep in mind the city of Seattle versus the rest of the state. And just like any other state in this country, you take the biggest city in the state, and it's kind of got its own way of doing things. Inside the city limits of Seattle and also in the city limits of Takoma, which is about a half hour south of Seattle, the people of the city - each of those cities passed measures that made marijuana enforcement, quote, the lowest priority for law enforcement. That was a number of years ago.

If you compound that with the fact that now we've legalize possession, that's why the Seattle Police Department issued a statement saying, hey, listen, for now we're not even going to enforce the law against smoking in public. So if people are lighting up under the Space Needle, we're going to, you know, we might walk by and say, hey, you shouldn't be doing that. You should take it home. But we're not going to cite them...

SHAPIRO: I just have to read this quote from police department spokesperson Jonas Spangethal-Lee, who wrote on the Seattle Police Department blotter: 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. Let's go to another caller. This is Jeremy in Denver, Colorado. Hi, Jeremy.

JEREMY: Hi. I'm calling - I'm the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado. And although I supported Amendment 64 for ideological reasons, we suspect, my wife and I, who are the owners of the business, and our other partners suspect that it can actually have a very negative effect on our personal business. We see the pressure we're feeling from the federal government. You know, we're not even allowed to get a bank, regardless of our extremely meticulous regulatory system we have here. We have a lot of pressure from outside, banking. And that's just, you know, the tip of the iceberg is the banking situation.

SHAPIRO: But, Jeremy, do you feel as though the liberalization of marijuana laws in some ways could pull your dispensary out of a legal gray area that it's in right now?

JEREMY: Well, we feel that that's a possibility. But we also feel, while the medical marijuana industry was feeling this pressure, this Amendment 64 could be looked at as a slap in the face to the federal government. And it's possible that they could just pull the plug on the entire system since, you know, we have the regulatory system in place here that's the model for the country.

Yet we're still being pressured in a way that we feel is, you know, patently unfair. We think that it's possible the federal government could react to this in a very politically unpopular way by, you know, increasing the pressure on us, not decreasing the pressure. And it's kind of - at the this moment in time, it looks like that's what's happening, honestly.

SHAPIRO: It's a complicated situation being in a business that the state says is legal and the federal government says is illegal. Thanks for the call, Jeremy.

JEREMY: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Keith Seinfeld of KPLU in Seattle, talk about the economic impact of this. I understand that sale is not yet legal but will be down the road. What could the consequences of that in terms of tax revenues and so on?

SEINFELD: The people who wrote the initiative have high hopes for that, that it will bring in in the order of $400 million per year in tax revenues to the state. A lot of that was earmarked within the initiative for health care spending. A small portion goes to marijuana education, a public health message warning young people about the dangers of marijuana and for counseling and recovery. So in theory we're going to get a fair amount of tax dollars from that.

But that estimate is almost like a back-of-the-envelope estimate because nobody really knows how big this market is going to be. Washington's system is highly restricted and regulated. There is this - there are a number of pot fans, maybe we should call them, who are calling themselves ganjapreneurs...


SEINFELD: ...and they have the high hopes of opening businesses. One guy is - was being quoted today as saying he wanted to sort of have the high-end cigar shop of marijuana shops, and so on. But the truth is, there's just going to be a very limited number of retail licenses. The state's going to control this, and they're going to limit how many can be in any one geographic area. And so they'll be competing with each other.

That high-end cigar shop guy will be competing with a current medical marijuana dispensary owner who both want to have the one shop in West Seattle, let's say. And so the whole economic side of it is really a brave new world. We don't know how it'll work out. In theory, though, one way or another, there should be a fair amount of tax revenue, and the state's looking forward to that for health care purposes.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about marijuana legalization in Washington State and soon to be Colorado. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take another call. This is Wes in Colorado. Hi, Wes.

WES: Hey. How's it going?

SHAPIRO: Good. Go ahead.

WES: Yeah. I just - I'm an avid smoker and a grower. And I've been at it for, oh, smoking for probably eight or 10 years and growing for about five, and just for my personal enjoyment. And I'm also a medical patient. But I think the biggest impact Amendment 64 here in Colorado has had is more along the lines of sending the message to the rest of nation that we've recognized that it's a pretty harmless plant and that there shouldn't be - it shouldn't be oppressed any longer.

SHAPIRO: Well, have you seen a change in attitudes in Colorado?

WES: You know, not very drastically, not as much as I really anticipated. It seems like it's been like everybody just kind of knew it was coming.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, thanks for the call, Wes.

WES: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on.

SHAPIRO: And Keith, what have you seen in your reporting in Seattle? Have attitudes changed much in Washington State?

SEINFELD: Well, I think that the outcome of the election and how overwhelming the approval was was definitely a sign to all involved and to federal authorities as well that definitely attitudes have changed. In some ways it is similar to the same-sex marriage issue, at least in that way, which was...

SHAPIRO: Which also went into effect.

SEINFELD: Today. And it was also in the same ballot. And it just showed, you know, how during the past decades attitudes have definitely changed. As your caller earlier pointed out, in the city of Seattle, for example, voters, a number of years ago, approved a measure making marijuana a low-priority for law enforcement. It's been more than a decade since medical marijuana was approved in this state.


SEINFELD: So there's been sort of a gradual increase. Nobody expects that we're going to see a sudden change. I think people are a little surprised that these public gatherings, you know, people under the Space Needle are being allowed to happen. So we'll see how that plays out.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call from Dan in Seattle. Hi, Dan.

DAN: Yeah. My wife and I have been smoking herb since 1968, I want to say. And she made a statement to me recently, since they've legalized it, that it had lost some of its appeal. It wasn't as...


DAN: She said she was going to quit smoking it. She's done with it.

SHAPIRO: If it's no longer counter-cultural, you're not interested?

DAN: That's what she's saying. And that's one of the craziest things I've ever heard, but...

SHAPIRO: So you're not onboard. You're going to keep smoking it, you're saying.

DAN: No. I'm still, no. I use it medicinally now myself as much as recreationally, if you want to say that.

SHAPIRO: Well, if your wife says no smoking and...

DAN: No, she doesn't mind. She doesn't care.

SHAPIRO: OK. But she's just going to give it up because she wants...

DAN: Yeah. She said it's not exciting anymore.


SHAPIRO: All right, Dan. Well, that's a very unique perspective. I'm glad you called. Thanks.

DAN: See you.

SHAPIRO: We have an email here from Colin, who is a resident of Washington State, saying: I'm disappointed in the joking Cheetos and Twinkies intro to this discussion. I'm a resident of Washington State and voted for legalization. I am not a pot smoker and think that pot is stupid, but this is an issue of states' rights and personal freedom, a very Western concept.

All right. Fair enough. And we have one more email here from Glen in Oysterville, Washington saying: I think the main effect of the new law is that state law enforcement will no longer cooperate with federal law enforcement because possession is not illegal under state law. Beyond that, under Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, he says, federal law trumps state law. So untaxed pot is still illegal no matter what any state says. Clearly, Keith Seinfeld of KPLU, a big legal morass you're going to be sorting through in the coming months and years.

SEINFELD: Absolutely. We're waiting to see, you know, everyone's sort of expecting that the federal government might send some sort of message. It's like, you know, reading the smoke signals from the Vatican. What are they going to do here in Washington...

SHAPIRO: Smoke signals, as it were.

SEINFELD: As it were, yeah. I'm sorry. Bad time...

SHAPIRO: All right. Keith Seinfeld, thanks for joining us.

SEINFELD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He's the assistant news director from member station KPLU in Seattle Washington and he joined us from a studio there. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with two veteran astronauts. We'll talk about what it's really like to live and work in space. And Neal Conan is back in this chair on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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