As Washington state blazes a new path in marijuana policy, the federal government may turn out to be harsher than the Seattle police.
Thursday marked the implementation of a new law allowing Washington adults to possess small amounts of cannabis. Denizens of the state’s largest city celebrated by lighting up, filling the air with the telltale pungency of burning marijuana without fear of being punished.
Technically speaking, Initiative 502 prohibits recreational marijuana use outside of the home. But police officers did not intervene on Thursday, and the Seattle Police Department handled the situation with the lighthearted tone that has marked many of the public pronouncements around Washington and Colorado’s recent moves to eliminate penalties for pot.
"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,” Seattle Police Department spokesperson Jonah Spangenthal-Lee wrote on the department's blog.
Federal law enforcement was absent from the festivities on Thursday, but that could change. The Obama administration has not signaled how it will respond to the new laws, although the Department of Justice released a statement noting that “growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law” and warning that “the Department's responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged."
The Controlled Substances Act categorizes cannabis as a dangerous, addictive drug with no medicinal value, equating it with heroin and LSD. That incongruence between federal and state law has already produced clashes in California, where federal prosecutors have cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb told ABC News that his department is well aware of the federal prohibition on marijuana. But, Whitcomb said, the people have spoken.
“Our primary area of concern is making sure we're enforcing the law our bosses want us to, and our bosses are the general public of Seattle," Whitcomb said.
Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington have carried a similar message to the Obama administration, urging Attorney General Eric Holder to respect their states’ authority and introducing legislation that would protect states that have legalized cannabis against federal enforcement.
The next step for Washington state is the creation of a state-regulated industry in which cannabis is sold, and taxed, at licensed stores. Various agencies have until next December to build the framework for the unprecedented pot marketplace.