Passing Laws and Joints in the State of Washington

The voters in Washington state recently legalized marijuana. The author, who is a resident of Washington, discusses the new law and what it might mean for federal employees who live or work there.

Stoners Unite!

Listening to the radio this morning, I heard yet another radio news story on “the birth of a new industry in the state of Washington” – the growing and marketing of marijuana.  As you may recall, my state was one of two that has legalized marijuana in the November election – Colorado being the other.  Now comes the hard part, which involves implementing the referendum that was passed by the voters.

While legalizing pot may shock some FedSmith readers, here in Seattle, the pungent odor of legal cannabis has become quite familiar.  We passed a “medical marijuana” initiative way many years back and our legislative bodies worked over the course of a decade, trying to decide how to implement the will of the people.  Green crosses denoting “dispensaries” have popped up on storefronts in neighborhoods all over Seattle during the past few years.  People with prescriptions (I’m told they’re not too hard to come by) have been buying medically recommended cannabis for some time now – often within blocks of pharmacies which dispense other prescriptive medications.

I have a friend who has a prescription for cannabis.  Her health is fragile and she finds relief after work some days by smoking pot.  She grew marijuana plants in her basement legally and, through a complex set of regulations, could “donate” some of the excess to a dispensary.  With the more recent legalization vote, however, any adult in our state can have up to 6 plants… legally.  My wife and I have a plot in our local community garden.  We grow a few vegetables and berries there.  I doubt we will be raising a cannabis crop there anytime soon, but the option is now licit.

Which government are we talking about?

If that were the entire story, FedSmith readers from around the country might start shopping for a transfer to Washington or Colorado.  It’s not.  Our Governor and state Attorney General have recently met with US Attorney General Holder and our US Attorney’s office to discuss whether and/or how the Feds will allow Washington to proceed to implement the will of our citizens.  Thorny issues present themselves on many fronts, and the Feds are being cautious but not antagonistic.

Washington’s United States Attorneys (we have two districts in our state) have been clear on one point as negotiations proceed.  Regardless of state and local positions concerning the possession and use of cannabis, these are crimes in the eyes of our Federal government – which includes government offices, lands, military reservations, etc.  Those subject to random drug screenings cannot use state law as an excuse when testing positive for the active chemicals in marijuana.  For now, I can pitch a tent in a state park and decide whether to drink a beer with my dinner or smoke some marijuana.  That is not the case when camping at Mount Rainier National Park.

Of greater concern are reports that might reach agency security offices.  For the thousands of Feds whose job requires a security clearance, pot remains a “controlled substance” in the eyes of Uncle Sam.  Possession of cannabis still represents contraband at the workplace to agency attorneys and security officials.  As with other personal habits/choices that may be construed as security risks (such as driving under the influence of alcohol), marijuana legalization doesn’t necessarily mean that Feds may indulge freely without concern regarding the consequences.

The times they are a changin’

What Washington’s new law does change, however, is important.  In the past, Feds out here could be arrested and jailed for having joints or small baggies of marijuana in their possession.  Now, however, simple possession and private use of less than an ounce will not warrant the same response.  Absent any local law enforcement action Washingtonians can use pot socially with less fear of arrest or a criminal record.  Of course, driving under the influence (which was specifically addressed in our state’s initiative) is still a crime.

As with other “morals laws”, the worm appears to be turning in our state, and much of the country.  Every US president since George H. W. Bush has acknowledged he smoked marijuana at some time… although not all have inhaled.  Had any of them been caught, they may have been felons and ineligible for candidacy.  Like them, I long ago reached a place in my life where smoking pot is of little, if any, interest.  Personal habits notwithstanding, using cannabis has been less of a moral hazard in this country over the decades since the Woodstock festival.  I was there in 1969 and stunned to see hippies fearlessly smoking joints within sight of police.

Washington State’s new law was not passed by elected officials.  As a citizen initiative, it will be difficult to enact and enforce.  Laws concerning the prohibition of marijuana, however, have proven challenging as well.  Washingtonians who favor the recent change hope that costs of law enforcement and incarceration will be reduced.  At the same time, revenues from taxed cannabis will (hopefully) more than offset the costs of regulating marijuana production and commerce.

Turning to the larger frame, the voter initiatives that passed here and in Colorado are signs that the War on Drugs is being re-examined in the 21st century.  We are seeing rapid social changes on many fronts – including the status sexual minorities (who can marry in my state), acceptable language, piercings/tattoos, etc.  Some welcome these changes and others condemn them.  Those Feds who agree with Washington’s new cannabis legalization, however, should think twice before pulling their bongs out of the closet in celebration.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to