SEATTLE - The crowds of happy people lighting joints under Seattle's Space Needle early Thursday morning with nary a police officer in sight bespoke the new reality: Marijuana is legal under Washington state law.
Hundreds gathered at Seattle Center for a New Year's Eve-style countdown to 12 a.m., when the legalization measure passed by voters last month took effect. When the clock struck, they cheered and sparked up in unison.
A few dozen people gathered on a sidewalk outside the north Seattle headquarters of the annual Hempfest celebration and did the same, offering joints to reporters and blowing smoke into television news cameras.
"I feel like a kid in a candy store!" shouted Hempfest volunteer Darby Hageman. "It's all becoming real now!"
In another sweeping change for Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage. The state joins several others that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.
That law also took effect at midnight, allowing gay and lesbian couples to start picking up their wedding certificates and licenses at county auditors' offices. Those offices in King County, the state's largest and home to Seattle, and Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, planned to open the earliest, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, to start issuing marriage licenses. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.
Technically, Washington's new marijuana law still forbids smoking pot in public, which remains punishable by a fine, like drinking in public. But pot fans wanted a party, and Seattle police weren't about to write them any tickets.
The department told its 1,300 officers on Wednesday, just before legalization took hold, that until further notice they shall not issue citations for public marijuana use.
Officers will be advising people not to smoke in public, police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee wrote on the SPD Blotter. "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."
He offered a catchy new directive referring to the film "The Big Lebowski," popular with many marijuana fans: "The Dude abides, and says `take it inside!"'
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