The slow advance to getting high in the US

Legalised in Washington state and decriminalised in Brooklyn, weed has a big week

Andrew Cuomo (centre), the Democratic governor of New York, signed the Compassionate Care Act into law on Monday. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Andrew Cuomo (centre), the Democratic governor of New York, signed the Compassionate Care Act into law on Monday. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Buying marijuana in the United States for recreational (read: fun) purposes may be legal in two American states now but for some it is far from acceptable as security guard Mike Boyer learned to his cost.

Boyer (30), from Spokane in Washington, stood in line for almost 20 hours waiting to become the first customer on “Green Tuesday” to buy recreational marijuana in one of 334 retail dispensaries licensed to sell grass. The shops opened this week two years after voters in the Pacific North West state voted to approve its sale.

Local television news stations rushed to cover the landmark moment featuring Boyer high-fiving customers as he walked out of Spokane Green Leaf shouting “first customer!” with his purchase – four grammes of Sour Kush marijuana – on his way home.

“His high was quickly brought low,” the New York Daily News reported: his employers, having spotted him on the TV, requested a urine analysis and fired him for smoking pot. “I don’t regret it,” Boyer told the Big Apple tabloid newspaper. “I’m sad it happened but I got the title: I’m No 1. I regret nothing.”

Others in the Washington community are equally unconcerned about marijuana purchases. Seattle’s city attorney Pete Holmes, an elected official who had campaigned for the legalisation of recreational marijuana, was the fourth customer at Seattle’s first pot shop, Cannabis City, when it opened its doors last Tuesday.

He bought two two-gramme bags of OG Pearl weed, one “for posterity” and one for “personal enjoyment”, he said. The announcement was a bold move for a public official and in contrast with Denver city attorney Scott Martinez who told The Cannabist website that he hasn’t bought weed since pot shops opened in January in Colorado, the first state to let everyday customers enjoy a legal high.

Supply

The bigger story in Washington was not the legalisation of marijuana but the shortage of it. Colorado had a regulated medical marijuana market by the time it legalised recreational use so there was a steady supply of grass that could be sold in new retail dispensaries.

While medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since 1998 there was little or no state regulation of that market. Even though recreational marijuana has been legal there since December 2012, there were, as of last week, only 79 growers licensed to produce weed, leaving supply sorely lagging demand in the first week of sales.

This week, on the other coast, New York was swept up in the wave of marijuana legislation crossing the country, though it didn’t go quite as far as Washington. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, signed the Compassionate Care Act into law on Monday, making the state the 23rd in the US (along with the District of Columbia) to allow doctors prescribe marijuana for patients not looking to get high but to receive some much-needed relief from pain.

In addition to the changing views about the drug’s medicinal benefits, the legalisation of recreational marijuana is seen as a major social change in the US. Even though the changes are coming for the most part in Democratic-leaning states, politically they should not be seen solely as a shift towards liberalism. On the right of the ideological spectrum, libertarians hail legalisation as a victory for citizens wanting less government intrusion in their lives and having a greater individual say in what they think is right or wrong.

Ease up

The changing views towards marijuana use is also being felt in the criminal justice system. This week, also in New York, Brooklyn became the latest place to ease up on prosecutions of people caught with a small amounts of marijuana so as to direct resources to more serious crimes.

Brooklyn’s African-American district attorney Kenneth Thompson said he would no longer prosecute adults charged with low-level marijuana offences with limited or no criminal records. This was because, he said, too many, “especially young people of colour” were being “unfairly burdened or stigmatised” by being drawn into the criminal justice system for non-violent conduct that poses no threat to others.

Prosecutors may take this view but the city’s police do not intend to show the leniency. New York Police Department commissioner William Bratton noted the Brooklyn DA’s stance on enforcement in relation to marijuana but said police had to enforce state laws in all five boroughs of New York, even in the most populous in the city.

Despite the latest advances toward marijuana’s legalisation and decriminalisation this week, getting high – across the United States – comes dropping slow.

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