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How soon can you start legally smoking marijuana in Washington?

I-502 legalizes possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused food and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid. (AP file photo)

Now that Washington voters have approved Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana, a lot of people are wondering when they can light up. But even though adults over 21 can possess up to an ounce of marijuana starting December 6 (or 16 ounces of pot-infused food items and 72 ounces of an infused liquid), they won’t be able to legally grow, manufacture or purchase pot for the next year.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board has until Dec. 1, 2013, to create the regulations that will control the production, distribution and sales of recreational marijuana products. Their role does not extend to medicinal marijuana under I-502.

“One of the first things we’ll need to do is to be able to reach out to the federal government, because marijuana does remain illegal under federal law,” says Brian Smith, a spokesman for the liquor board.

Rather than setting up state-run liquor stores, the language in the initiative allows for the licensing of private stores to sell pot. It would be similar to the way cigarettes and liquor are sold now, although Smith says it would not be exactly the same system.

“The initiative itself was crafted, at least loosely, around the existing state liquor laws,” says Smith. “But because marijuana is an entirely different animal it’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

The ACLU of Washington has already announced its intention to take an integral role in implementing 502. They note that stores selling marijuana would have to be at least 1,000 feet away from schools and parks. There could also be a limit set on the number of stores allowed in a certain area.

Even after December 6, using marijuana in public will still be against the law. Rather than facing the threat of arrest, though, anyone caught will face a civil infraction similar to a traffic offense and would be required to pay a fine.

Also going into effect next month is the driving under the influence of drugs provision of I-502. Drivers, even medicinal marijuana users, can be cited for DUID if they have more than 5 nanograms of THC in their blood. That can only be determined through a blood draw, something officers can not require without probable cause.

“Washington’s new law provides a safe and smart alternative to marijuana prohibition,” says the ACLU’s Kathleen Taylor. “It advances individual liberty and will eliminate unreasonable arrests, which have often targeted people of color.”

The initiative sets up a three-tiered tax system where pot would be taxed at 25% at the production level, at the distribution level and again at the point of sale. The liquor control board will have an opportunity to take a closer look at those rates and recommend any changes to the legislature.

Following a year of rule making, private businesses should be able to set up shop by the end of 2013.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy will have to provide the legislature with recommendations on the costs and benefits of I-502, with additional evaluations required in 2015, 2017, 2022 and 2032.

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