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Marijuana possession cases in Washington state going up in smoke

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Prosecutors in Washington state's two most populous counties plan to dismiss scores of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases following passage of a landmark voter initiative earlier this week to legalize pot for adult recreational use.

Washington and Colorado became the first U.S. states to remove criminal sanctions for personal possession of an ounce (28.5 grams) or less of marijuana as voters approved ballot measures on Tuesday to legalize recreational use of the drug, setting up a possible showdown with the federal government.

Washington state's legalization measure passed with more than 55 percent of voters supporting it and fewer than 45 percent opposed, and will take effect next month.

But prosecutors in Washington's King and Pierce counties - which contain the cities of Seattle and Tacoma - moved swiftly to announce they were dropping 225 pending possession cases currently in the pipeline.

"The people have spoken loudly in Initiative 502, and there seems to be no point in continuing to prosecute cases for conduct that's going to be legal in a couple of weeks," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told Reuters.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said, "I don't believe any jury is going to convict on a simple marijuana case after this initiative has passed."

All the cases slated for dismissal represent the relative few in which marijuana possession alone is charged. Conviction for possession of an ounce or less carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail, Lindquist said.

Legalization efforts put both Washington state and Colorado at odds with federal law, which classifies marijuana as an illegal narcotic. The U.S. Justice Department has yet to say what if any actions it will take in response to the votes.

Asked to comment on the charge dismissals, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for western Washington said the Justice Department was reviewing the newly passed ballot initiatives and "has no additional comment at this time."

In addition to legalizing personal possession of marijuana, the new Washington and Colorado laws will permit cannabis to be legally sold and taxed at state-licensed stores in a system modeled on what many states have in place for alcohol sales. Those provisions will take longer to be put into effect.

Washington and Colorado already have laws on the books legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, along with 15 other states and the District of Columbia.

Federal prosecutors in some of those states have launched a crackdown on pot dispensaries and greenhouses deemed to be engaged in large-scale drug trade under the pretense of supplying medical cannabis to patients.

(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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