Imagine the sight: crowds of people smoking marijuana openly in public with no fear of handcuffs being slapped on them.
It may sound strange, but that's exactly what unfolded in Washington State early Thursday as throngs celebrated a new law that officially makes marijuana legal there.
But don't expect the streets of Seattle to be filled with puffs of blue smoke any time soon. As Reuters reports, smoking marijuana in public will remain off-limits, just like the public consumption of alcohol in that state. However, police officers have been instructed to issue warnings to those breaking the rules, not arrest them – at least for now.
Under the law, anyone age 21 or older is legally allowed to possess 28.5 grams (one ounce) of marijuana for personal consumption. Individuals are also allowed to possess products infused with cannabis, such as brownies, that weigh up to 0.45 kilograms (16 ounces).
Licensed stores will also be able to sell cannabis, but it is still illegal to sell, grow or even share one's personal amount of marijuana.
But not everyone agrees that marijuana should be legalized. Many outspoken critics argue that legalized marijuana will encourage consumption of a harmful, addictive substance and that these initiatives will fuel drug-related problems, including violent crime and addiction.
Proponents of cannabis legalization like to point out that marijuana has no serious adverse effects and can help people diagnosed with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, arthritis and anxiety disorders.
Yet many members of the medical community argue the picture isn't entirely rosy. Marijuana use over a long period of time could cause problems with memory, concentration and other cognitive functions.
Potential health risks aside, numerous studies, including a report presented to Canadian Parliament in 2001, found that legalization of marijuana in coffee shops in the Netherlands didn't lead to an increased rate of public consumption of the drug. The report also found that use of opiates and other hard drugs was lower in the Netherlands than in other European countries.
Although Canada has long toyed with decriminalizing marijuana, that idea was shelved when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office. Earlier this year, the Liberal Party endorsed marijuana legalization. A poll conducted earlier this year found that two-thirds of Canadians say it should be decriminalized, in sharp contrast to the position of the Harper government.