Pot possession eased in Washington, but don’t take it to Victoria

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The state’s ounce-of-marijuana possession law is the first in the nation, beating Colorado’s by a month.

But the federal government — which still considers any amount of marijuana illegal — does not allow pot to cross international borders, including on MV Coho sailings between Port Angeles and Victoria, a federal customs spokesman said.

Mike Milne, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Seattle, said Washington’s voter-enacted Initiative 502 — legalizing the personal possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana — does not change the drug’s federal status.

Office of Field Operations inspectors — those posted at all U.S. ports of entry, including the ferry landing on Railroad Avenue in Port Angeles — still will seize and destroy any amount of marijuana found on anyone wishing to enter the United States, even if possession is legal at the state level.

“Our procedures remain intact,” Milne said. “It’s still illegal to import or possess [marijuana] at a port of entry or government facility.”

Penalties depend on the amount seized, Milne said, but would mean as much as a $500 fine for seizure of the ounce that is allowed by Washington state as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

And the illegality goes both ways.

Carrying marijuana into Victoria via the Coho — or into any other part of Canada by other means — remains illegal and will be dealt with by Canadian customs officials, said Faith St. John, spokeswoman for the Canadian Border Services Agency.

St. John did not want to speculate on the various circumstances under which marijuana could be seized and the associated penalties but said Canadian customs inspectors will differentiate between personal-use amounts and larger quantities thought to be intended for later distribution.

Initiative 502 passed last month with 55 percent of the statewide vote.

It also calls for establishing a framework within a year that would allow the state to regulate the growing, processing and sale of legal amounts of marijuana.

Hundreds of marijuana advocates gathered at Seattle’s Space Needle before midnight Wednesday and staged a New Year’s-countdown-style event to one second past midnight, when I-502 became law.

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 at television news cameras.

“I feel like a kid in a candy store!” shouted Hempfest volunteer Darby Hageman. “It’s all becoming real now.”

Washington and Colorado became the first states to vote to decriminalize and regulate the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by adults older than 21.

Both measures call for setting up state licensing schemes for pot growers, processors and retail stores.

Colorado’s law is set to take effect Jan. 5.

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 federal Justice Department has not said whether it will sue to try to pre-empt the Washington and Colorado laws.

“The department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” said a statement issued on the eve of the new law by the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress.”

Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Last modified: December 06. 2012 5:47PM
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