Everything you need to know about Washington’s Initiative 502

Marijuana, News, Politics, Rights

With the introduction of the second legal marijuana market in the United States, it’s high time we review the nuts and bolts of Washington’s Initiative 502, which took effect July 8 of this year.

Although these new laws certainly represent a victory for marijuana enthusiasts eager to minimize the paranoia of lighting up, they are not without limitation. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions about Washington’s I-502, including information concerning cross-jurisdictional issues, age limits and the impact this new enterprise is likely to have on Washington’s small business marketplace.

I’m 18 years old, can I buy pot in Washington?

Nope, sorry kid. Like alcohol, the legal retail sale of marijuana in Washington is limited to those 21 and older. The law may differ if you hold a valid medicinal marijuana prescription, however I-502 is silent on medicinal marijuana and focuses solely on the recreational use of cannabis within the jurisdiction of Washington State.

I’m a resident of Oregon. Can I purchase marijuana in Washington?

Absolutely, but don’t plan on leaving with it. Currently, the only two states that permit recreational marijuana use are Washington and Colorado. Therefore, even if you lawfully purchase pot in one of these two jurisdictions, you are prohibited from consuming marijuana in a jurisdiction that does not allow for recreational use.

What if I’m flying to Colorado?

One of the law’s important caveats to remember is that you cannot possess marijuana, even in recreational amounts, while flying between Washington and Colorado. You also cannot bring marijuana into any area of the airport under federal control. In other words, do not, under any circumstance, try to sneak marijuana past Transportation Security Administration agents.

How can I legally smoke pot in Washington if the federal government has not enacted laws to permit recreational use? Won’t I be in violation of federal drug laws?

Technically, yes. However, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last August that he would not use Department of Justice or federal law enforcement to criminally prosecute recreational users in Washington or Colorado. So, while the Code of Federal Regulations still maintains criminal laws regarding the possession and use of marijuana, don’t count on getting arrested by the FBI; you won’t.

Where is the best place to buy marijuana now that it is legal?

As with alcohol, the sale of marijuana is regulated by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and only licensed vendors are permitted to dispense marijuana within the state. Currently, the liquor board has determined that 334 licenses to sell recreational marijuana should sufficiently meet the demands of the state population. However, only a small fraction of license recipients were in business immediately following the law’s introduction earlier this month.

For interested buyers, the liquor board maintains a directory of licensed marijuana retailers, which is available here.

Retail establishments are required to be 1,000 feet from any elementary or secondary school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, library or game arcade that allows minors to enter.

In general, retail shops can sell to customers between 8 a.m. and midnight.

How much will it cost?

According to various retailers, one ounce of marijuana is expected to cost anywhere from $12 to $24. Of course, market forces have yet to set a definitive price on this emerging industry.

How much can I buy?

I-502 only permits shoppers to buy and possess up to one ounce, or 28 grams, of marijuana at a time. With regard to other substances infused with THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, Washington law allows the purchase of up to 16 ounces in edible form or 72 ounces in beverage form.

And do not plan on trying out the merchandise before you buy. Interestingly, I-502 prohibits the recreational use of marijuana within the confines of a licensed retailer and only permits private use.

Now that you mention it, where am I allowed to light up?

Despite the legislation’s goal  “to stop treating adult marijuana use as a crime and try a new approach,” the law still encourages users to keep pot smoking private.

Under the tenets of I-502, it is illegal to smoke pot in public places, and violators could face a $27 fine if caught. Although the statute does not expressly define “public place,” it is safe to surmise that pot smoking is primarily limited to private residences.

Also, it is still considered illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, and the imposition of I-502 has enhanced and specified the threshold for a marijuana-based DUI.

Can I really get a DUI for driving after smoking pot?

Absolutely. Part V of I-502 contains extensive detail about the laws surrounding driving under the influence of marijuana. The statute boldly begins with the assertion that any driver, by virtue of his decision to enter the public roadway, has consented to a drug and alcohol impairment test and can face serious consequences for refusing evaluation.

Currently, a driver could face a DUI charge if blood test results reveal five or more nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Nanograms?! How does this test work?

If anything can kill the joy of the recent legalization of marijuana in your state, it’s getting a DUI for driving while stoned. Washington law prohibits operating a vehicle while under the influence of marijuana, and law enforcement officials will pull you over for suspected intoxication.

A driver pulled over for suspected impaired driving will likely face a field sobriety test known as a Drug Recognition Evaluation. The test will involve some of the same evaluations used on drunk drivers, particularly the horizontal gaze test. If, given the totality of the scene, the officer believes the driver is under the influence of marijuana, he may then arrest the suspect and take him to the station for a blood test to measure levels of THC.

Speaking of tests, is my employer still allowed to drug test me for marijuana?

Possibly. Any employer receiving federal funding is still within its rights to drug test and potentially fire an employee for marijuana use.

Why did Washington lawmakers decide to decriminalize recreational marijuana?

According to its policy statement, the Washington legislature gave three primary reasons for their decision:

  • To allow police and law enforcement to focus on violent and property crimes as opposed to recreational marijuana use
  • To generate tax revenue for education, healthcare, research and substance abuse prevention
  • To take marijuana “out of the hands of illegal drug organizations” and bring it under the tightly-regulated purview of state oversight

Explain the taxes to me. How much, and where do they go? 

Currently, Washington tax laws assess a 25 percent excise tax on the cultivator, another 25 percent excise tax on the producer and a 25 percent excise tax on the retailer. Purchasers should expect to pay a 9.6 percent general sales tax, as well as applicable local and municipal sales taxes.

Tax revenues from the sale of recreational marijuana are allocated to fund the administration of I-502 as well as several research projects and substance abuse programs. Remaining funds are spent on Washington’s general healthcare program. 

Sounds great. How do I start my own pot-based business?

First, you will have to do a lot of work to get licensed and funded.

Washington has set aside 334 retail licenses for interested candidates, but only a handful of these have been awarded since the program rolled out. Currently, a retail license costs $1,250 and allows a licensee to sell “only usable marijuana, marijuana-infused products, and marijuana paraphernalia.”

Retail licenses were awarded earlier this year pursuant to a lottery system, and the state liquor board is not issuing additional licenses at this time. As the initiative expands, it is possible that additional licenses may become available.

For additional information about what it takes to become a processor or producer of recreational marijuana in Washington, check out the guidelines here.

So, cheers Washington! With the enactment of I-502, the recreational use of marijuana has been removed from a criminal context and entered the realm of revenue-generating private industry.

Photo: YES on WA’s Marijuana Initiative 502