In Our View: A Lengthy Legalization

'Pot' might be easy to spell but it's hard to implement

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Legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Washington state was the right thing to do, but fully implementing Initiative 502 is a massive undertaking that requires diplomatic juggling with federal officials, plus new interpretations of complexities in the criminal justice system.From Gov. Chris Gregoire on down, state officials are caught in a tug-of-war between urgent deadlines, and bureaucracies that move with the speed of molasses. On the hurry-up end of the rope, I-502 takes effect on Dec. 6, the day election results are certified. And prosecutors in Clark County and elsewhere already are dismissing misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases because they involve marijuana amounts of up to 1 ounce, allowable under the new state law. On the other end of the rope, however, the U.S. Department of Justice is in no hurry to announce how it will interpret new marijuana-legalization laws in Washington and Colorado that apparently fly in opposition to federal marijuana laws.

Gregoire tried to accelerate matters earlier this week when she visited Washington, D.C., but Justice Department officials declined to reveal if they will (1) do nothing to block I-502 from taking effect or (2) sue to block I-502 because federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug or (3) adopt a stance somewhere between those two possibilities.

Gregoire sounds rushed, understandably so. "I told them, 'Make no mistake, that absent an injunction of some sort, it's our intent to implement decriminalization.' I don't want to spend a lot of money implementing this if you are going to attempt to block it.' " The feds, though, are understandably reluctant to act quickly. "It's not a simple analysis for them," Gregoire added. "There's a difference between (Washington and Colorado) initiatives, and (the feds) want to look at that. They clearly want to know how things are going to flow, how regulations develop, how enforcement would be taken, taxes would be gathered."

Among the differences, in Washington, home-grown marijuana will remain illegal, whereas Colorado will allow adults to grow six marijuana plants each.

As if all of that were not complicated enough, there's more. The Washington State Patrol is eager to start training on enforcing the driver-under-the-influence component of I-502, but it can't do so until the Justice Department issues some kind of formal response.

Therefore, if you think the licensed and legal sale of marijuana will begin soon and tax revenues will come rolling in shortly thereafter, well, guess again. The state actually has until Dec. 1, 2013, to set up the system for issuing licenses to marijuana producers, processors and retailers, and collecting taxes.

Even when (and if) all of that transpires, a lengthy societal examination of workplace testing -- and the myriad other impacts of I-502 -- will follow.

Although approving I-502 was the proper course of action, it did little more than launch a long and uncertain journey. We're glad these first steps are being taken, but noticeable changes will take a long time to unfold.