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Q&A: Marijuana law takes effect Thursday

In this Nov. 7 photo, medical marijuana is packaged for sale in 1-gram packages at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. (Associated Press)
In this Nov. 7 photo, medical marijuana is packaged for sale in 1-gram packages at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. (Associated Press)

When the clock ticks past midnight tonight, Washington will have the most permissive law in the nation regarding marijuana, thanks to voters who approved Initiative 502.

But the new law isn’t a blanket license for anyone to smoke marijuana anywhere, anytime. There are restrictions within the law, and some items that must still be settled, either by state agencies or the courts. Here are some answers to common questions about what changes in state marijuana laws Thursday.

Q. Can I legally have marijuana?

A. If you are under 21, no, just like alcohol. Over 21, yes, with some notable exceptions. If you live or work in a place that has federal legal restrictions on drugs, state law doesn’t override those restrictions.

Q. Is there a limit to how much I can have?

A. For adults the limit is 1 ounce per person. It is also legal to have up to 16 ounces of a marijuana-infused product, such as baked goods with the drug cooked into it. Above an ounce, current laws apply, so having up to 40 grams – slightly less than an ounce and a half – is a misdemeanor, and having more than 40 grams is a Class C felony. A minor with an ounce or less can be cited for a civil infraction; for other amounts, the law is the same as for an adult. Mary Muramatsu, an assistant Spokane city prosecutor, said there will be a zero-tolerance policy for minors with marijuana.

Q. OK, I’m an adult. Can I smoke marijuana anywhere?

A. No. You cannot smoke (or otherwise consume) marijuana in a public place, which would include parks, stores, restaurants, malls and sidewalks. You can smoke in your private residence or someone else’s if they don’t object.

Q. That could be a problem because my spouse and most of my friends don’t allow smoking in the house. Can I go outside and smoke?

A. Maybe. In a home you have “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Spokane City Attorney Nancy Isserlis said. But if you’re smoking on the front porch and your house is on a busy street, it could be a problem. “There are some nuances to the law that have to be worked out,” she said.

Q. Can I drive while smoking marijuana?

A. Bad idea. Having a lit marijuana cigarette while driving is a civil infraction, akin to having an open container of alcohol in the car, even if you aren’t impaired. Just like there’s a legal limit for your blood-alcohol content, starting Thursday there is a limit for the amount of active cannabis agent in your bloodstream. It’s 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, and some critics of the law say that’s very low for regular users. Go over and it’s an automatic ticket for driving under the influence.

Q. How will that be measured?

A. It requires a blood test.

Q. So police will do blood draws on the side of the road?

A. No. If they suspect you of being under the influence – a Washington State Patroltrooper might call a drug recognition expert if one is available – you will be informed of the state’s “implied consent” law and asked to take a blood test at a local medical facility. Refusing a blood test will be like refusing a breath test for alcohol consumption: You could lose your license through an administrative procedure, and the fact that you refused could be introduced as evidence if you try to fight the DUI charge in court.

Q. From whom may I legally buy marijuana?

A. Short answer: No one right now. Long explanation: The law says the state Liquor Control Board will set up a system to regulate and tax the growing, processing and distribution of marijuana. But the state has until next December to do that. In the meantime, WSP troopers and other officers are directed that growing or selling any amount is still a crime.

Q. Can I buy it legally from a medical marijuana dispensary?

A. Only if you have a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for a medical problem. State laws for medical marijuana, which have different limits for possession of the drug and their own legal problems with production and sale, don’t change on Thursday. Neither does the conflict between state and federal laws over marijuana. If anything, that gets more complicated.

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