Marijuana decriminalization Initiative 502 went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on December 6th in Washington State. A celebration followed near the Space Needle in Seattle. Seattle was a curious place for a celebration of the new law because the City of Seattle stopped enforcing marijuana laws beginning in 2010. The effect of I-502 will be noticed most in the more conservative locations of eastern Washington where prosecutions have continued up until December 6th, 2012.
Several questions remain about the new law. Initiative 502 does not make it clear where cannabis users can purchase the drug. The state-licensed stores that I-502 envisioned are likely to provoke a legal challenge by federal authorities. Additionally, private colleges and state universities spent the last month developing new policies that address marijuana use on campus. Most schools will continue to disallow marijuana possession. Initiative 502 will not change the federal statutes that prohibit the possession, manufacture or sale of marijuana. However, the limited resources of federal prosecutors will mean that people possessing small amounts of marijuana will not likely face federal prosecution except in extraordinary cases. Criminal defense lawyers are fielding phone calls from Washington residents who are seeking clarification of the new law.
Initiative 502 also sets a legal limit of 5 nanograms of THC for persons operating a motor vehicle. Without prosecutions for possession of marijuana, law enforcement is likely to refocus their efforts on “stoned” driving in the months to come. Marijuana users have been left wondering at what point it is safe to drive a motor vehicle. Unlike alcohol, THC intake can be hard to measure and blood levels hard to predict. (See Steve Graham’s prior blog posts on I-502.)
Our Canadian neighbors have also taken notice of the new law. While marijuana is illegal in Canada, enforcement is spotty, and the punishments less severe. Canadian nationals have often been surprised by the legal problems that can result from being caught with marijuana at the US border. Prior to the passage of Initiative 502, the federal authorities relied on State prosecutors to file marijuana possession charges in State Court. Due to initiative 502, federal border agents will be faced with referring the matter to the US Attorney’s office, or levying a civil fine.
The true effect of Initiative 502 will not be determine for a couple of years.
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