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2:23 am
Wed December 5, 2012

Pot's Legal In Washington State, But Don't Drive High

Originally published on Tue March 5, 2013 12:10 pm

Marijuana is legal in Washington state as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, but the ballot initiative that made it legal last month contained a new DUI standard — a deal-sweetener for hesitant voters — that may actually make life riskier for regular pot users.

The new law makes it legal for adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, but illegal for that same adult to drive if the THC content of his blood reaches 5 nanograms per milliliter.

Steve Sarich, who uses medical marijuana for back pain, says he wakes up at four to five times the legal limit. Six weeks ago, he said that if the legalization initiative passed — along with the new DUI standard — he'd either have to hire a driver, or leave Washington.

"I haven't left the state yet," he says. "But, you know, I realize that I take my legal life in my hands every time I do get behind the wheel."

Sarich ran the most vocal opposition campaign to the initiative — mainly on the issue of the new blood-content limit. He's convinced that he and other regular users of medical marijuana will be stuck on the wrong side of the law.

He's right to worry, says Peter Peaquin, one of Seattle's top DUI lawyers.

"It is a Pandora's box," he says.

Peaquin says driving impaired by pot was already illegal. What changes now is that pot users have to learn to think in nanograms per milliliter. Even for someone who has built up a high tolerance, Peaquin's advice is simple.

"I'm telling him, do not get behind the wheel," he says, "even if he's feeling totally fine, because the mere fact of having that level in his blood and driving a car makes him a criminal."

Surprisingly, the advice from the Washington State Patrol is a mellower. Spokesman Bob Calkins says pot users should keep in mind that troopers won't be pulling people over for random blood tests.

"Regardless of whether this person has been a regular user of marijuana, may have a routine THC level in his blood of this point or that point, if he's driving OK, he's probably not going to come to our attention," Calkins says. "And if he's driving badly, he probably is going to come to our attention."

Besides the DUI question, pot users in Washington face another conundrum: Where to get it? The new law legalizes possession, but there's still no legal way for recreational users to acquire it. The law calls for the state to set up a network of licensed growers and pot stores, but that will take at least a year, assuming it's not challenged by the federal government. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.

In practice, though, pot is readily available, especially in places like Seattle's University District. You could go with the dealers outside the Jack in the Box restaurant, or just walk into a medical marijuana store.

Three young guys are sipping Starbucks cups filled with mushroom tea; they plan to round off their afternoon with a bit of weed. Questions about Thursday's legalization are met with a shrug.

"Nothing really changes for medical card members. If you have your cannabis card, then you're set," says one of them. "Nothing changes. You can still go to the dispensary and get your buds."

The reality is that it's easy to get medical marijuana cards for complaints like "anxiety," usually from alternative medicine clinics. Still, some obstacles to the untrammeled enjoyment of marijuana do remain in Washington. One pro-pot group was all set to hold a legalization party in a county-owned facility until officials realized it would run afoul of the state's strict ban on smoking — any kind of smoking — in public spaces.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Marijuana is legal in Washington State as of midnight tonight. It was legalized by a ballot initiative last month. But that initiative included a deal-sweetener to bring along hesitant voters. It's a new DUI standard for the state that could mean trouble for regular pot smokers who get behind the wheel.

Here's NPR's Martin Kaste,

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The new law makes it legal for an adult to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. But it makes it illegal for that same adult to drive, if the THC content of his blood reaches five nanograms per milliliter.

STEVE SARICH: I wake up in the morning at four to five times the legal limit.

KASTE: Steve Sarich uses medical marijuana for back pain. Six weeks ago, he told me that if the new DUI standard passed, a guy like him would face the same penalties as a drunk driver. He said he'd either have to hire a driver or leave Washington.

SARICH: I haven't left the state, yet. But, you know, I realize that I take my legal life in my hands every time I do get behind the wheel.

KASTE: Sarich ran the most vocal opposition campaign to the initiative mainly on this issue: He's convinced that he and other regular users of medical marijuana will be stuck on the wrong side of the law. And he's right to worry, says Peter Pequin.

PETER PEQUIN: It is a Pandora's Box.

KASTE: Pequin is one of Seattle's top DUI lawyers. He says driving impaired by pot was already illegal, but what changes now is that pot users have to learn to think in nanograms per milliliter. For a marijuana user who's built up a high tolerance, Pequin has this simple advice.

PEQUIN: I'm telling him, do not get behind the wheel.

KASTE: Even if he feels totally...

PEQUIN: Even if he feels totally fine. Because, the mere fact of having that level in his blood and driving a car, makes him a criminal.

KASTE: Surprisingly, if you talk to the Washington State Patrol, the advice is more mellow. Spokesman Bob Calkins says pot users should keep in mind that troopers will not be pulling people over for random blood tests.

BOB CALKINS: Regardless of whether this person has been a regular user of marijuana, may have a routine THC level in his blood of this point or that point, if he's driving OK, he's probably not going to come to our attention. And if he's driving badly he's going to come to our attention.

KASTE: Besides the DUI question, pot users in Washington face another conundrum: where to get it. The new law legalizes possession but there's still no legal way for recreational users to acquire it. The law calls for the state to set up a network of licensed growers and pot stores, but that will take at least a year - assuming it's not blocked altogether by the Feds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

KASTE: In practice though, pot is readily available, especially in places like Seattle's University District. You could go with the dealers who stand outside the Jack in the Box, or you could just walk into a medical marijuana store.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, we're actually on our way to go get some pot right now.

KASTE: Three young guys are walking down the street, sipping from Starbucks cups filled with mushroom tea - that kind of mushroom tea. They now plan to round off their afternoon with a bit of weed. As regular drug users, they don't want to give their names. But asked about tomorrow's legalization, they just shrug.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nothing really changes for medical card members. If you have your cannabis card, then you're set. Nothing changes, you can still go to the dispensary and get your buds.

KASTE: But you need a serious medical condition for that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Technically, yes.

KASTE: Medical marijuana cards are easy to get, especially from certain alternative medicine clinics, which hand them out for complaints like anxiety. Still, some obstacles to the untrammeled enjoyment of marijuana do remain in Washington. One pro-pot group was all set to hold a legalization party in a county-owned facility, until officials realized it would violate the state's ban on smoking, any kind of smoking in public spaces.

Martin Kaste, NPR news, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.