Puffing But Paranoid: Seattle’s First 4/20 With Legal Pot

Dude, this is legal, right? On the first pot holiday since Washington said yes to recreational marijuana, a haze of legal uncertainty put a drag on the state’s festivities, Winston Ross reports.

04.21.13 10:39 AM ET

’Twas the early afternoon of 4/20, and all through a club called The Luxe in Seattle’s University District, stoners draped leis fashioned from fake marijuana leaves ‘round their necks, scarfing down chili bowls, celebrating their Thanksgiving: April 20, 4/20, the unofficial, equal parts revered and reviled day of... celebrating how awesome it is to get high.

The weird thing about it, though: nobody was actually smoking any weed.

Washington legalized pot in last November’s election, but even on this haziest of “holidays,” this does not mean dank lovers strut down the streets, spliffs dangling from their mouths, smoke billowing up at the Space Needle. The only people puffing and puffing and passing during at least this “420Fest” were tucked in an alleyway outside the bar, tarps obscuring their tokes from view of the street, raindrops occasionally splashing into their flaming bowls.

The party’s organizers, the same who put on city’s annual Hempfest gathering in August, made it quite clear to all who entered the premises Saturday that there could be no marijuana smoked inside, lest the organizers find themselves in violation of the state law prohibiting anyone from smoking anything inside a business that’s open to the general public. And even though weed is legal in Washington now, it’s not legal to puff “outside,” in view of impressionable children and such, which is why attendees found themselves hotboxing in an alley, celebrating their newfound freedom in a pretty discreet way. A way that made it feel kind of illegal.

That feeling intensified at the arrival of the cops. Two Seattle police officers on bikes, their presence announced by a whisper through the venue: “The man is in the building. The man is in the building.”

The officers walked around inside first, all eyes trained nervously on them. What were they looking for? What would they do? Even the event’s organizers, as schooled in their newfound rights granted by Washington voters as anyone, had no idea. Would they shut the whole thing down? Call in the feds? Arrest the stoners on site, for violating some city code the organizers had failed to consider? The tension inside was as thick as the smoke in that alley. The cops said nothing. They just walked, slowly, through the crowd.

Then the police found the alley, where the air had quickly and substantially gotten much clearer over the prior couple of minutes, where pipes had been stuffed hastily into boxes and pockets, still warm from the last hit. Nobody said a word.

Step by step, The Man strolled through the alley, parting the revelers. “Chill,” someone said to no one in particular but to everyone who could hear her. “Chill.” The cops got to the end of the row right as one youngster had just inhaled a massive toke. He had no choice but to blow it out, pretty much right in one of the officer’s faces. He ignored it, took a peek up a nearby staircase, turned around and walked back out. On his way, he smiled at an old hippie in a corduroy jacket, and uttered two words no one ever thought they’d ever hear from a police officer’s mouth in the United States of America:

“Happy 420.”

Happy, anxious 420. Rage on, with one eye over your shoulder. Celebrate this newfound freedom, but mind the fact that you’re still breaking federal law, or maybe some other state law, or maybe city code. Puff down, but be a little paranoid.

This was the state of a holiday steeped in excitement and uncertainty in Seattle. Happiness but no outright jubilation. Progress, but so many unanswered questions.

“This year represents victory, and advancement,” said Vivian McPeak, one of the event’s organizers. “They used to laugh at us when we talked about legalizing marijuana. Nobody’s laughing now.”

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In part, that’s because there’s an infinite amount of uncertainty about what all this means. Even Raekwon has his doubts, the legendary rapper and member of the Wu-Tang Clan explained as he sipped Hennessy from a Styrofoam cup in the back room of a boutique clothing store named Alive & Well on Capitol Hill, a few minutes after the significant time of 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 had passed.

Don’t get him wrong, the rapper told The Daily Beast: Raekwon loves marijuana, and has been smoking it for three quarters of his life.

“It didn’t make me a bad person,” he said. “It made me an innovative, creative person. A conscious person. A greater emcee. It’s an enhancement.” 

But this headlong rush towards legalization makes him a little uneasy, too. He has kids. He doesn’t want to see weed overly glorified. It’s a plant, but it’s also a drug, and that’s not always a good thing for everybody who uses it.

“Legalization is cool, but it’s then it’s not so cool,” he said. “It’s from the earth; you’re getting real good THC from the ground. But the bad thing is you’re giving it too much of an opportunity for children to want to explore it. I don’t want kids to glorify it like that.” 

In Washington at least, that debate is over for now, as lawmakers and stakeholders turn to a blizzard of questions that must be sorted out before the Evergreen State can start calling itself “Wamsterdam.” Few are as familiar with the labyrinth of twists as turns ahead as 28-year-old Seattle attorney Hilary Bricken, who is three years out of law school and now devoted entirely to the subset of her firm now called “Canna Law Group,” which is slammed with clients.

Some are medical marijuana growers and users, afraid they’ll get either ostracized or lumped in with lawmakers’ efforts to sort out how recreational marijuana will be licensed and distributed over the next year or so. Some are black market, old-school drug dealers who hawk their wares out of messenger bags in city parks, worried they’ll lose all their customers as safe, regulated, inspected and—oh, yeah—legal marijuana looms into view. Why buy weed in a park when you can buy it at the store? 

Most are looking for a way to cash in, like Michael Wood of Portland, Ore., who drove up to Hempfest with a stack of T-shirts with a picture of smoke rising out of the Space Needle on them, titled “Washingstonia 2012.”

“Is it a viable business? Not even close,” Wood told The Daily Beast. “But worst case, I lose a couple thousand bucks and have a lifetime supply of T-shirts.” 

T-shirts are the tip of the green leafy iceberg, knows Bricken, who is furiously helping her clients figure out how they might get licensed to grow and distribute weed, to open weed bakeries, weed tourism companies, weed festivals, cannabis crawls, maybe a weed bowling alley. Would-be cannabis entrepreneurs are even establishing marijuana private-equity funds. We might one day be trading pot stock on Wall Street.

Bricken thinks that last idea absurd, but this much isn’t:

“Somebody’s going to make a lot of money. It’s only a matter of time.”

As a lawyer who has to beat her clients off with a Thai stick, Bricken is ecstatic about all these questions and possibilities. But she’s not one to blow smoke, either. Between this 4/20 and the next 4/20 could come a rat’s nest of unintended consequences: the federal government still hasn’t figured out how to reconcile the unavoidable conflict between its laws and those passed last year in Colorado and Washington; the states haven’t figured out who and where and how many people will be granted licenses to grow and sell marijuana; cities haven’t figured out how they’ll tweak their zoning laws to address a completely unknowable proliferation of pot shops; the medical community might decide its own rights are being trampled as everyone fixates on the more profitable (and taxable) recreational realm. Will the black market fight back? Will banks loan money for marijuana-related businesses? How will the IRS treat the profits? Will major drug traffickers start buying up huge quantities here and carting it all over America, giving the feds no choice but to crash the party? What happens to the 145 medical marijuana dispensaries that have sprouted up all over Seattle in recent years, now outnumbering Starbucks? What will happen to the price of weed? The quality? Will it be commoditized? Commercialized?

“It’s becoming less counter and more culture,” Bricken said. “In the future, the flower children will still be out there celebrating but it might be Starbucks that owns the grow. Will this just be another corporate bloodbath? I feel like this 4/20 is a little ominous. We don’t know where things are going.” 

Still, Bricken planned to celebrate (vicariously) on Saturday, at an event her firm helped sponsor called Studio 420. Whether and how much to network and boost her clientele at the gathering is a somewhat sticky question for the attorney, but if nothing else, she tries to keep up on what people are saying and how they’re smoking and what kinds of devices they’re smoking with.

Even if the actual smoking has to happen behind a tarp.