UW students still waiting for the marijuana tooth fairy

One student explores the legality - and the consequences - of lighting up, which ironically may be harder for college students to do legally than the rest of us.
Crosscut archive image.
One student explores the legality - and the consequences - of lighting up, which ironically may be harder for college students to do legally than the rest of us.

I am 21 years old, which means that in nine days, Washington state law will allow me to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and toke myself into a stupor if I so desire.

Unfortunately, since I don’t have a prescription, no dispensary can sell it recreationally, and distribution of the drug by private citizens remains a Class B felony under state law — see Section 19 of the new bill. The only way I’ll get any legally is if the pot fairy leaves a baggie under my pillow at night.

Adding to the confusion, there’s no surefire way to know when I’ve sobered up enough to drive. And what happens if I decide to light one up on my federally funded college campus?

What is in store for the thousands of young students who — let’s be real — aren’t going to wait until they’re of age to imbibe?

Green light, gray area

The new law gives the State Liquor Control Board until Dec. 1, 2013, to set up a system for distribution and regulation. The board released an official statement saying, “We expect that it will take the full year to craft the necessary rules which will provide the framework for the new system.”

That leaves a 360-day gap between legalization and implementation, where recreational users are left in a legal gray-area. It’s OK to have it — King and Pierce counties have dropped hundreds of possession cases already, and Cindi West, the the public information officer at the King County Sheriff’s Office, said they won’t be making any more possession arrests.

But according to a Q&A session with the Seattle Police Department, it’s still illegal to buy it, grow it, or sell it.

“Now it’s kind of strange because you can have it, but you can’t sell it to anybody,” said Alison Atwell, a University of Washington student and medical-marijuana patient. “The transaction is still illegal, so that’s really bizarre to everybody.”

The old college try

Here’s another wrinkle: Even if you’re of age and smoking in private, you still might be up the proverbial creek if you’re on a school campus that receives federal funding. With that funding comes the obligation to comply with the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act and the Drug Free Workplace Act.

“If we receive federal funding, we have a responsibility to honor that, and that basically says marijuana and other substances are illegal,” said Cmdr. Steve Rittereiser of the University of Washington Police Department.

In the past, most marijuana possession cases were simultaneously referred to disciplinary bodies within the University of Washington — which can exact academic penalties — and to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which can pursue legal action.

But King County isn’t doing a whole lot of marijuana prosecutions these days — at least not for over-age possession. Rittereiser said prosecuting for marijuana possession on campus may now be an issue between the school and the federal government, “if you even could.”

“We are on state lands here,” he said. “It’s very complicated.”

On the road

Let’s assume the pot fairy comes through, and I decide to celebrate my good fortune. How long will I have to wait before I can legally drive? Before the THC in my blood falls below the 5-nanogram-per-milliliter-of-blood limit outlined in I-502? There’s no scientific consensus, and it’s even less clear how long it would take an underage user to get below the 0.0 nanogram limit required for them.

Steve Sarich, a self-described medical-marijuana patient activist, who spearheaded the No on I-502 campaign, went so far as to say, “If you’re under 21 and using marijuana, you’re fucked.”

Sarich’s rhetoric is inflammatory, but the text of I-502 matches up to his zero-tolerance claims. The bill states that a DUI conviction is lawful when “the THC concentration of the person’s blood is above 0.00 if that person is under the age of twenty-one.”

The “THC concentration” in question refers to, as the initiative says, “delta-9” THC, also called “active” THC, rather than the “metabolite” THC that stays in the body for months after use.

The truth is confusing. Sarich claims active delta-9 THC could also be present for up to a month after use. A recent Seattle Times article claimed that the majority of research suggests “active THC dissipates in casual users within hours." Still, the same article also cited a study that found the detection period to be “highly variable,” and said time frame for a positive test “may not completely include the interval during which the user may be affected by the drug.”

New Approach Washington, the organization that authored I-502, cites a 2009 National Institute of Health study that shows active THC drops below the legal 5-nanogram limit within hours. Unless you smoke regularly. In which case, a 2005 study in the journal Addiction found that users can have between 1.0 and 6.4 nanograms of THC in their blood, even 24-48 hours after smoking their last joint.

Vivian McPeak, the co-founder and executive director of Seattle Hempfest, said there’s a lot of speculation at this point.

“If you’re taking some tokes on the weekend, it’s unknown what your blood levels will be the next day, or that evening,” he said.

If an officer pulls you over for driving erratically, and the officer identifies what West called “obvious signs of impairment,” they have probable cause to begin a DUI investigation. This could mean conducting field sobriety tests, consulting a drug recognition expert, or asking permission to draw blood to test for THC.

Under implied consent licensing laws in Washington, you can have your license suspended for refusing a blood test. If you’re charged with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, if you’re unconscious, or if you committed an action that caused serious injury to another, West said, officers can draw blood without consent. Blood draws normally occur at a hospital, because a medic has to perform them, but can be done in the field if a medic is present.

And even if you refuse and lose your license, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“DOL and criminal hearings are done separately,” West said. “Even if a person refuses to take a blood test, that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to go to trial or get charged with a DUI.”

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Photo illustration by Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Atwell, who is well-acquainted with the drug and its effects, said stringent regulations are reasonable because weed is unpredictable. Whereas drinking different varieties of alcohol produces a similar state of impairment, she said, different strains of pot vary drastically.

“There are strains of everything out there,” she said. “Some of it’s really euphoric and energetic, a lot of it is really depressive, so it really depends on what you’re smoking.”

Whatever strain they might be toking, underage users should know many studies suggest it takes much longer for active THC levels to drop to 0.0 nanograms — the requirement for them to avoid a DUI or other legal action. The same National Institute of Health study cited by New Approach Washington suggests it could take almost a week for heavy users to test completely negative.

More questions than answers

The science is less than conclusive, and the legality is far from straightforward. Until next month, there’s no way to know how this will all play out.

West has told Washingtonians to proceed with caution. For younger users, she framed her warning around missing out on out-of-state and government job opportunities. The sheriff’s office, for example, will still conduct drug tests and won’t let employees smoke pot.

“People need to go in with their eyes wide open,” she said. “Just because it’s legal here doesn’t mean it is around the country, and that can affect us.”

McPeak said there were “a lot of alarmist predictions” surrounding legalization that will be put to the test over the coming year.

“I think that’s the benefit of passing I-502,” he said. “Now we’re going to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.