By Polly Keary, Editor
As of Dec. 6, it became legal to smoke marijuana in Washington. It is not, however, legal to buy it, sell it, or grow it.
That is just one ambiguity of several that, in the wake of Washington’s historic legalization law, have many people wondering what passage means, and what is and is not legal now.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the Monroe Police Department have clarified what the new law means, and what they are doing to enforce the restrictions on use that remain.
“There so many things about the implementation of this new law that are unknowns,” said Monroe Deputy Chief of Police Ken Ginnard last week. “But as of today, it’s legal to have an ounce of marijuana for people 21 or older.”
Police will no longer arrest anyone over 21 for having under an ounce of marijuana.
But they will ticket those using it publicly, and they will arrest those using under the age of 21.
They will also arrest those who drive under its influence.
Under the new law, anyone driving in Washington has been deemed to have given “implied consent” to give a blood sample if appearing to be under the influence. Those found to have a concentration of greater than five nanograms of THC (tetrahyrdocannabinol, the active chemical in marijuana) per milliliter of blood will exceed the legal limit.
That element of the law has been controversial among legalization advocates, who say that the power of the police to make arrests based on blood tests could result in people being arrested because of traces of THC that remain in their blood after the effect of the drug has worn off.
But Monroe police officer Spencer Robinson, who is a certified drug recognition expert, said that the levels beyond which it has been declared illegal to drive would indicate that the driver is still high.
“There has to be a standard of impairment, and it’s been studied enough that they have established guidelines,” he said.
“Traces in urine can last 30 days, but blood is much more defined,” added Ginnard. “If there is actually five nanograms, you can presume they are affected by it.”
But just because an officer pulls over a driver and smells marijuana doesn’t give the officer the right to demand a blood sample, said Robinson.
“The key word is probable cause, we have to have it,” he said. “I’ve evaluated people that had the odor of marijuana but I found they were not impaired and they were released.”
In order to establish probable cause, a person trained to evaluate drivers for evidence of impairment can interview the subject.
Monroe is uniquely positioned to do that quickly; while only about one in 100 police officers statewide have taken the 80 hours of classes and yet more hours of field study required to be a drug recognition expert, Monroe’s force has three such officers.
The training involves watching people, usually people arrested on drug crimes who aren’t interested in treatment, use illegal drugs and then observing the results.
“We get to see effects of crack, marijuana, meth, and now the national trend of prescription drugs like Vicodin, Oxycodone and other depressants,” said Robinson. “To summarize, it’s a lot of medical training about the effects of different chemicals and how they affect the body and the central nervous system.”
In cases when accidents occur, a driver may benefit from a blood test, Robinson pointed out. It can prove a driver was in fact not under the influence of anything at the time.
Also, drug recognition experts can detect medical emergencies that, to an untrained eye, might appear to be drug-related behaviors, such as the symptoms of diabetic shock or impending heart attack.
Both Ginnard and Robinson acknowledged that marijuana possession and use of any kind is still illegal under federal law.
“It’s a concern,” Ginnard said. “We have said we are going to follow federal and state laws, but whether we go out and enforce them, obviously we are going to follow Washington law.”
Officers will still not be able to use marijuana, Robinson noted.
Currently the state liquor control board is working on a plan for how to manage the growth, regulation and sale of marijuana, which is supposed to take place a year from now.
“I had a talk with the chief and deputy chief of the liquor board a couple weeks ago and they are treading new ground,” said Ginnard. “It’s a lot like medical marijuana was at first. We don’t know how we are going to deal with it. We are going to go through some growing pains.”
Washington marijuana law, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office
It is now legal for Washington residents over 21 to have up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products such as brownies and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid products.
Possession of between one ounce and 40 grams will continue to be a misdemeanor, and more than 40 grams still constitutes a felony.
The sale, possession and use of marijuana paraphernalia is now legal.
It is not legal to smoke, use or display marijuana in any public places.
It is not legal to drive under the influence of marijuana.
Police, if they suspect that you are driving under the influence of marijuana, can now compel a blood sample, where as before the law changed, that was only true in the case of an injury accident or in case of endangerment of public safety.
It is not legal to grow, buy or sell marijuana outside of the medical marijuana system.
It is not legal for Washington residents to carry marijuana outside of the state, or be under its influence outside the state.
Anyone found to be driving with a concentration of 5 nanograms of THC (the psychoactive property of marijuana) per milliliter of blood, or any person shown to have that concentration of THC as much as two hours after driving, will be guilty of driving under the influence.
Anyone under the age of 21 who is found to be driving with any concentration at all of THC in the blood will be guilty of driving under the influence.