Legalized marijuana in the Valley; For teens, drivers, Snoqualmie stays strict on pot use

When he started in law enforcement 30 years ago, Steve McCulley wouldn't have predicted the day when smoking marijuana would be legal.

But last month, Initiative 502 changed things. Backed by 55 percent of Washington state voters, I-502 makes it legal to possess marijuana, in certain quantities.

Snoqualmie police are adjusting to 502's new rules, which took effect Dec. 6. McCulley, Snoqualmie's Chief of Police, says his department will observe the letter of the law while maintaining strict enforcement for drivers and youth.

For local cops, most marijuana busts are on a low, misdemeanor level. Snoqualmie police typically encounter marijuana when they notice paraphernalia or the drug itself in traffic stops. Before I-502, this would result in a ticket and possible fine. Confiscated marijuana, meanwhile, is held as evidence and eventually burned at an incinerator in Spokane.

Now, under new the law, adults are allowed to have marijuana: An ounce of the plant itself, 72 ounces (the equivalent of a six-pack) of marijuana-infused liquid, such as oil, or 16 ounces of a product containing marijuana, such as a brownie.

Possession beyond those amounts is a misdemeanor crime. The new law did not change medical marijuana rules.

It's still illegal to smoke marijuana publicly, or to display it. McCulley said he considers a car to be a public space—there's no expectation of privacy, he says, behind your car windows. Anyone who smokes pot in public may face a ticket.

The Washington Liquor Control board has until December of next year to come up with rules for the licensed manufacture, delivery and sale of marijuana.

Until those rules are established, even though possession of marijuana is legal, "there's no way to legally buy it until next December," McCulley said. "It's really kind of an oxymoron."

"Our stance is going to be strict enforcement, like we do with alcohol, for people who are underage," he added. "It may be legal for adults," but as for teens: "They're not like an adult yet."

City cops will continue to enforce possession, underage use, and driving-while-intoxicated laws. Police can use a blood test to measure the amount of THC, the intoxicating compound in marijuana. The limit is 5 nanograms.

"If you display signs of being impaired, you're going to be arrested," says Snoqualmie Police Captain Nick Almquist.

McCulley has also asked that the city update its codes to ban sales licenses for anything that's illegal under federal law, such as marijuana.

"I concur with the chief," City attorney Pat Anderson told the Record in an e-mail. The city has not adopted such an ordinance yet, but staff will propose that the council do so early next year.

No sales would be legal under state law  in any case until the Washington State Liquor Control Board has issued their rules for manufacturers, distributors and retailers, which could take up to a year, Anderson added.

For police, I-502 is a game-changer. Supporters of  the initiative suggested that the legalization measure would help divorce illegal elements and criminal organizations from marijuana.

That remains to be seen, says McCulley. Legalized marijuana, he concedes, may be a safer product—otherwise, "how do you know what you're smoking?" The chief also sees comparisons with Prohibition, America's national ban on liquor sales in the 1920s and '30s.

The new law "is an attempt to regulate and maybe reduce some crime elements," the chief says. "We'll see what happens."

McCulley says a safe community remains his number one priority.

"We're bound to support what's legal under this law, but also to aggressively enforce what's not legal," he said. "That's always going to be our stance. Especially with people under 21."

Snoqualmie Police Department can be reached at (425) 888-3333.


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