Washington state made history on Thursday as the first in the United states to legalize marijuana possession for adult recreational use, an occasion celebrated by dozens of users near Seattle's famed Space Needle tower amid blaring reggae music and a haze of pot smoke.
Reuters News Agency reports that the public gathering defied a key provision of the state's landmark marijuana law, which forbids users from lighting up outside the privacy of their homes. And it underscored mixed messages that law enforcement officials have conveyed about the new statute.
Hours earlier, Seattle's city attorney issued a stern warning that pot puffing in public would not be tolerated and that violators faced citations carrying $100 fines.
But the local prosecutor's admonition was contradicted by the Seattle Police Department's own instructions to its officers to limit their enforcement actions to warnings, at least for the time being.
Passed by voters last month as a ballot measure called Initiative 502, the new marijuana law removes criminal sanctions for anyone 21 or older possessing 1 ounce (28.5 grams) or less of pot for personal recreational use.
It also legalizes possession of up to 16 ounces (0.45 kg) of solid cannabis-infused goods - like brownies or cookies - and up to 72 ounces (2.4 kg) of weed in liquid form.
However, driving under the influence of cannabis, or imbibing in public places, where the consumption of alcohol already is banned, remains illegal.
"If you're smoking in plain public view, you're subject to a ticket," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said at a news conference Wednesday. "Initiative 502 uses the alcohol model. If drinking in public is disallowed, so is smoking marijuana in public."
The new law ultimately will permit cannabis to be legally sold and taxed at state-licensed stores in a system to be modeled after those in many states for alcohol sales. The state Liquor Control Board, along with agriculture and public health officials, have until December 1, 2013, to set up such a system.
But for now, it remains a crime to sell, cultivate or even share one's own stash, even though the law allows individuals to purchase a limited amount for personal possession.