High-5 North to Vansterdam

A primer for potential pot tourists.

Vancouver is rarely touted for its progressive politics, but Portland's sister city to the north now may now have one solid, um, high point.

With passage of ballot initiative I-502, Washington joined Colorado this year as one of the first two U.S. states to legalize pot for recreational use. Meanwhile, Oregon's own campaign to legalize non-medical marijuana, Measure 80, went down in flames.

Still, many Oregonians like to toke. So for Portland pot smokers who might think Vancouver is now a premium-puff Shangri-La where you can buy your weight in weed, here's a primer on the legal situation across the Columbia River.

When does the law take effect?
Dec. 6, 2012. Unless it doesn't. Federal law trumps state law, and Uncle Sam still says pot is illegal. According to John Fairgrieve, a Clark County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, the feds have been eerily mum about whether they're going to block Washington state's law.

"They could stop it or they could not stop it," Fairgrieve says. "We're going to wait until Dec. 6 and go from there."

OK. But let's say the feds don't stop the law. In Vancouver, can I light up where I want?
Not under the terms of I-502, which stipulates that adults over age 21 are allowed to possess up an ounce of marijuana, up to a pound of marijuana edibles such as cookies or brownies, or 72 ounces of "infused liquids" such as oils. But you still can't legally smoke it in public view.

So what if I forget and accidentally smoke a bong in front of the police station? What happens?
Not much, really. Under the new Washington law, smoking pot in public is a class 3 civil infraction, punishable by a fine of $50. It doesn't even go on your criminal record. 

How is medical marijuana affected by this?
It isn't. Anyone legally licensed to grow or smoke medical marijuana is unaffected by I-502.

What if I'm not a medical-marijuana patient and want to buy weed. How do I do it legally?
You can't—not yet. After Dec. 6, says Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp, "You can possess up to an ounce of weed. But where people would get that, I don't know. There are no sales or distribution sites. You can't grow it. The state would have to set that system up.” 

So you can own pot but not grow or buy it?
At least for a while. Under I-502, only people licensed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board will be able to grow, process or sell weed. The WSLCB has until Dec. 1, 2013, to figure out a licensing system.

I have to wait until 2013 to legally buy weed?
Maybe even longer. “[We’re] more likely to see a functioning market in 2014,” says Brian Smith, WSLCB communications director. 

Why does it take so long?

In part because the law allows the WSLCB to take that long. "Our current governor has made it clear," Smith says. "We don't want to spend too many resources only to have the feds move in and stop it." Smith stresses that a state-run marijuana-licensing system is a first-time prospect in the U.S. "We're building the system from the ground up," he says.

Are there new DUI limits for marijuana?
Yup. Any adult suspected of being under the influence of marijuana while driving is already subject to a blood test. What's new with I-502 is specificity: Any blood concentration over 5 ng/mL of active THC—the intoxicating component of marijuana—nets you an automatic DUI.

What happens if I'm under 21 and smoke pot?
The only thing that changes for minors under the new law is that any trace of THC in their blood will lead to an automatic DUI if they're behind the wheel. Possession is subject to the same misdemeanor penalties as always.

So as of Dec. 6, what can I do legally in Vancouver that I can't do in Portland?
You can smoke a joint in a private place, and you can carry a bag of weed in your pocket.

That's something, though, right?
It is. 

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