Congratulations, Washington and Colorado; you did it. Whether you voted for it or not, your ability to possess and smoke marijuana for recreational purposes is now an unchallenged right – at least as recognized by state and local governments. If you are a Washingtonian, midnight last night was the first time you could light up legally in the state, or in any state for that matter. But where do state and federal law enforcement officials stand on the issue of enforcement? What does this mean for the illegal marijuana trade? And, when is it your state’s turn? I attempt to (figuratively) clear the air on these questions after the break.
Officially, Initiative-502 was passed on November 6th, 2012 by a majority of Washington voters. Among other things, it gives the Washington State Liquor Control Board the authority to tax and regulate the production and sale of marijuana; establishes the ability to license growers, distributors, and retailers; outlines new rules about driving under the influence of marijuana; and earmarks a portion of all related revenues towards marijuana research and education.
Now, it is a well known fact that the federal government HATES drugs. I would too, had I spent almost $1 trillion in the past 40 years to fight them with minimal success. Still, federal agents have continuously raided and prosecuted growers and distributors of medical marijuana in those states where such marijuana has been made legal. Their stance is that marijuana is a controlled drug that will be illegal “until we say it ain’t” – but that may be changing.
Since passage of the laws in Washington and Colorado, the federal government has only said that they are “reviewing the laws”, and have not yet vowed to stop these state laws from coming into effect. So it seems that, for the time being, you can be free to smoke and joke wherever and however you want. Or can you?
What You Cannot Do
As much as I hate to compare marijuana to alcohol, the laws and enforcement surrounding the two are remarkably similar – at least according to I-502 in Washington. You cannot smoke in public (or drink), you cannot smoke while driving (or drink), and you cannot drive under the influence of marijuana (or alcohol). Just what constitutes DUI of marijuana is yet to be determined, and will probably open the floodgates to shifty rules and questionable science. Lastly, unlike alcohol, there is a limit to how much you can carry on your person at one time (1 ounce). However, it seems like the “stoned in public” laws will be lazily enforced: a group of smokers lit up at the (very public) Space Needle at midnight last night, and cops basically looked the other way. Some sources even say that Seattle police have been directed to only give verbal warnings for now.
What You Can Do
Well, as mentioned before…smoke pot. In private. Legally. Up to an ounce at a time – and even more when it comes in liquid forms (I have never smoked before so I’m clueless as to what that part of the law actually means).
And Now, the Catch…
The law only passed a month ago, which means the hideously slow process of establishing regulations to license growers and distributors may not be in place until next Christmas. So, for now, the only sources for non-medical marijuana are still technically illegal. The state acknowledges this paradox, and one official even commented “If pot falls from the sky, you can pick it up off the ground and legally possess it.” In other words, as long as you aren’t caught growing, trafficking, distributing, or buying the pot, you’re in the clear…at least by state law.
What This Means for the Drug Traffickers
For now, nothing bad. In fact, they have a monopoly on a market that will only grow as more people become willing to try it without fear of legal reprisal. However, once legal growers and distributors become licensed, it will be bad news for the cartels.
I’ve heard several people saying that people will still grow and sell illegally, but it becomes a matter of economics: weed is already a cheap drug. Once legal growers flood the marked, street prices will have to bottom out – and not because legal weed will be cheaper (it almost certainly won’t) but because supply will dramatically increase. And when you have a choice between buying weed from a legal supplier, even at a 50% premium, and buying from a shady dealer and risk jail time, what are you going to do? Some will choose the latter, but the vast majority will choose the former.
Back in 2010, Proposition 19 had a shot at making pot legal in California. However, it failed, surprisingly. Still, I was lucky enough to be taking a class on international political economy from a professor who was very involved in Mexico, only twenty minutes South. During this time, I learned of some fascinating studies that estimated the impact on the revenues of Mexican cartels should the measure pass: some estimated that as much as $2 billion in revenues could have been lost because of the legalization of marijuana in California, and inevitably, the United States soon after.
Pardon the alcohol comparison again, but look at prohibition: in the 13 years that alcohol was completely illegal in the US, the bootlegging trade boomed. But after it ended? Gangsters had to turn to extortion, racketeering kidnapping, and gambling to continue making stacks of cash. Sure, it was more expensive for the consumer, but you weren’t funding the violence and crime that the illegal alcohol/drug trade causes. I would speculate a similar trend to happen here.
So When Can I Smoke Legally in [insert Bible-belt state here]
Never! You sinner.
Just kidding. What is happening here is a social experiment, and one that I think is welcome in these monotonous times. The legality question has always been asked and we finally have an opportunity to answer it. And, to plug my home-state, it is happening in one of the more well-educated, socially stable, and economically vibrant corners of the country. I hope that this experiment succeeds. There are many more problems that need resources devoted to them, and hopefully the increased revenues and decreased enforcement requirements will go a long way towards solving them.
If nothing else…people were always going to smoke weed, no matter what we tried to do to stop it. We might as well try to control it and bring billions of dollars into the government’s treasury in the process.
What do you think? Let us know below.