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Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Pot law’s Catch-22: You can have it but can’t buy it

Initiative backers say their priority was to end arrests for possession, and leave the details of regulation to officials.

It sounds so contradictory.
It's now legal for adults 21 and older in Washington to possess up to an ounce of pot. They just can't legally buy it, at least not for another year.
This seeming Catch-22 of allowing adults to have marijuana, but giving them no legal way to purchase it, has caused some to publicly criticize the way the initiative was drawn up, in essence asking: "What were they thinking?"
Initiative backers made the legalization of small amounts of pot for adults its first priority by design, said Alison Holcomb, an attorney and spokeswoman for the pro-legalization initiative.
"What we wanted to do is bring an end to the arrests of adults for marijuana use as quickly as possible," she said.
In Washington, there are about 9,000 cases each year involving marijuana possession by people 18 and older; only about 700 involve the manufacture and delivery of marijuana, she said.
Holcomb said she understands that for anyone not familiar with marijuana laws, the ability to possess, but inability to buy it for at least the next year, may seem confusing.
Although 14 other states have decriminalized use of medical marijuana, none have attempted to set up a system to tax and regulate its sale for adults for recreational purposes, until now, she said.
The initiative hands responsibility for drawing up the blueprint for licensing and taxing growers, distributors and retailers to the state's Liquor Control Board, giving it a Dec. 1, 2013, deadline.
"We did not want to try to address all the details of how the regulatory system should work in the initiative," Holcomb said. Instead, it leaves it in the hands of a state agency that until June of this year was regulating liquor sales in Washington.
Officials with the state Liquor Control Board have said that the public shouldn't expect to see a state licensed store open until 2014.
The initiative specifies that marijuana will be taxed at 25 percent at each step: when it is grown, when it is sold to wholesalers and when it is sold to a customer in a licensed store. The price, with taxes, including additional state and local sales taxes, is estimated at about $336 an ounce. At a Mukilteo medical marijuana shop, an ounce today sells for about $240.
Although such a system would be historic, ending an era of prohibition, whether it is anything more than a voter pipe dream is yet to be seen.
That's because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. On Wednesday, the day before the law allowing adults to possess limited amounts of marijuana went into effect, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle gave the public a pointed reminder.
"Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on Dec. 6 in Washington state, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law," her statement said.
The Department of Justice continues to review the legalization efforts in Washington and Colorado, which passed a similar legalization law last month.
Durkan advised people to remember that it remains against federal law to bring any amount of marijuana onto federal property, including all federal buildings, national parks and forests, military installations and courthouses.
Although it is against the new law to smoke pot in public, some supporters gathered in Seattle late Wednesday night to celebrate as the change in the law went into effect at midnight -- by publicly lighting up.
"Obviously it made a lot of us a little nervous," Holcomb said. If things were to get out of hand with ongoing public use of marijuana, it might cause other states looking at decriminalization to have reservations, she said.
"I think the celebration was well deserved by those activists and consistent with the generally good manners of our marijuana-smoking population in the city," Holcomb said.
"It was a unique moment in time and history," she added. "I don't think Seattle residents need to worry that it will become a regular experience."

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