Our Guide to Washington State Marijuana Laws

On November 6, 2012, Washington State voters legalized the sale of recreational marijuana in their state. Along with Colorado that same night, the Evergreen State bucked federal law to become a cannabis trailblazer. Initially, they took a slow, regulated, and at times confusing approach to getting legal production and sales underway. But over the years since the passage of Initiative 502, Washington has made progress in terms of nurturing a thriving marijuana industry.

Even with the slow start, the laws related to purchasing and enjoying recreational marijuana in Washington are fairly straightforward. We’ll tell you what you need to know to be a law-abiding and considerate consumer in Washington State.

Recreational Shop/Dispensary
Where to stay in Washington
The top tours in Washington

How Washington Got Legal

Washington State–particularly in and around the state’s largest city, Seattle–has long been at the forefront of cannabis awareness and the legalization movement. Seattle has played host to Hempfest since 1991, the world’s largest annual event advocating for decriminalization, and has long been known as a top U.S. destination for those who embrace and enjoy marijuana.

Marijuana Law Milestones
  • 1998: Early advocacy efforts lead to medical marijuana becoming legalized in Washington in 1998.
  • 2003: Seattle passes an initiative that makes adult marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority.
  • 2010: A similar effort to remove criminal penalties for the use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana in the state (Initiative 1068) fails to get enough signatures to be placed on the ballot.
  • November 4, 2012: Initiative 502 passes with 56% of the vote.
    • We’ll provide details of the initiative when we explain the laws later, but basically I-502:
      • Legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and marijuana use by adults 21 and over
      • Created a legal recreational industry overseen by the state’s liquor control board
  • April 25, 2015: Governor Jay Inslee signs Senate Bill 5052 in to law which dramatically alters the rules related to medical marijuana in the state.
    • The bill brings medical and recreational marijuana under the same regulatory umbrella.
  • July 1, 2016: Senate Bill 5052 goes into effect.
The Steps to Legal Sales

After Initiative 502 passed, marijuana stores didn’t appear overnight–in fact, it took until July 8, 2014 for the first retail shop to open. Here’s the timeline of what happened between passage of I-502 and stores opening for business, and what has happened since Washington’s recreational industry first got underway.

  • August 29, 2013: US Attorney General Eric Holder announces the Department of Justice will allow Washington and Colorado to proceed with their plans to legalize marijuana.
  • December 1, 2013: The Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) meets the deadline for creating rules for the new marijuana industry which regulate the entire process “from seed to sale.”
  • December 20, 2013: The deadline is reached for all producer, processor, and retailer license applications to be submitted.
  • March 6, 2014: The WSLCB issues the state’s first licenses to produce and process recreational marijuana.
  • July 7, 2014: The WSLCB issues licenses to 24 retail shops around the state which are allowed to open within 24 hours of receiving their licenses.
  • July 8, 2014: The first recreational marijuana stores in Washington State open to the public.
  • July 16, 2014: The WSLCB defines the rules for the selling of marijuana edibles, including packaging and labeling of the products.
  • August 6, 2014: The first edibles and the first vape pens go on sale in recreational stores.
  • 2014-2016:
    • More than 1,300 licenses are issued to producers, processors, and retailers
    • Laws begin to be crafted to address the packaging and marketing of marijuana
    • The 25% excise tax called for in I-502 is increased to 37% but is now applicable only to consumers at the point of retail sales
    • A new “common carrier transportation” license is created allowing businesses to form that simply transport marijuana between producers, processors, and retailers
      • This license also opens up state ferry routes to marijuana transport
    • A new “research” license is created for marijuana-related research
  • July, 2016: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Washington’s non-medical marijuana sales have passed the $1 billion mark since 2014.
    • This generates more than $250 million in marijuana excise tax revenue for the state.
  • Late 2016: The Cato Institute conducts a study on the impact of marijuana legalization in 4 states, including Washington, which reports that:
    • Teen marijuana use remains unchanged
    • Legalization has little impact on traffic fatalities
    • Marijuana arrests are way down
  • 2017: A new bill–HB-1092–is introduced by State Representative Sherry Appleton to allow individuals over the age of 21 to grow up to 6 marijuana plants (12 per household).
    • As of spring 2017, the bill is in committee in the House.
    • If it passes there, it will go to the Senate for a vote later in 2017.
The National Context

So how is Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana seen on a federal level?

  • Since marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance at a federal level, many residents of Washington and Colorado held their breaths after legalization in 2014, waiting to see whether the Department of Justice would step in and play a role in state-level processes.
  • But, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a memo to the governors of both states that the DOJ would not interfere and planned to allow the laws to go into effect.
  • Those working for drug policy reform say the approval of I-502 dramatically boosts the movement’s political clout on a national level and adds to the pressure on the federal government to allow each state to decide on its own regulations.
  • Tom Angell, Chairman of the drug policy reform group called Marijuana Majority, claims that the end of federal marijuana prohibition is now only a matter of time and that policies related to it will be a much bigger issue in Washington DC now that more states are legalizing marijuana.
  • The confirmation of Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General in February, 2017 creates some anxiety among marijuana reform advocates since he can choose to uphold or rescind the U.S. Justice Department’s August, 2013 memo suggesting that U.S. attorneys not prioritize marijuana-related convictions.
  • You can learn more about the current administration’s thoughts on state legalization by reading this article.

And how does it fit in with other legalization movements around the country?

  • Many states (especially Alaska and Oregon) were watching Washington and Colorado closely to see how they implemented the initiatives that were passed, and how well their differing approaches worked (you can read up on Colorado’s marijuana laws here).
  • Both Alaska and Oregon passed their own legalization initiatives on November 4, 2014, as did Washington, D.C.
  • Nevada joined the growing ranks of legalized states on November 8, 2016.
    • After Nevada’s successful vote, there are now four states sharing borders on the west coast that have legalized marijuana.
    • This creates an interesting conundrum since it is illegal to transport cannabis across state lines, even between states that have legalized it. So everyone involved in the legalization movement will be watching closely to see how the situation is managed by authorities out west.
  • With legalization now in place in 8 states and the District of Columbia, the national market for marijuana is projected to reach $7 billion by the end of 2017 and $22 billion by 2022.
  • More and more states are expected to place legalization measures on the ballot in the coming elections.
  • Read all about the current status of marijuana in all the states over at NORML.

The Law in Washington

Personal Use

These are the rules:

  • Marijuana, just like alcohol, is for adults only. You must be at least 21 years old to purchase products from a recreational marijuana store.
  • Any adult can make purchases–even out-of-state visitors.
  • All recreational products must be consumed in Washington State.
  • The most you can purchase and possess at any one time is:
    • One ounce (28 grams) of “usable marijuana”
    • 16 ounces of “marijuana infused product in solid form;” or
    • 72 ounces of “marijuana infused product in liquid form;” or
    • 7 grams of “marijuana concentrate”
    • Marijuana-related paraphernalia
      • And this goes for all adults–Washington residents and visitors alike
  • Washington is a no-grow state. You can’t grow even a single plant without a producer license, even if it’s for personal use.
    • But a new bill–HB-1092–was introduced by State Representative Sherry Appleton in early 2017 to allow individuals over the age of 21 to grow up to 6 marijuana plants (12 per household).
    • It will be voted on by the House and Senate in summer of 2017.
  • You can’t share what you buy; the law considers sharing to be illegal distribution.
  • You can learn more about Washington’s laws and penalties over at NORML or get a quick rundown from ThinkProgress.
A Word About Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington State since 1998, but the approval of I-502 in 2012 immersed the state’s MMJ system in murky waters.


  • From 1998 when medical marijuana was legalized until a couple years after legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012, medical marijuana in Washington was much like the wild west–little regulation, little oversight. And it was very patient friendly.
    • Medical marijuana producers, growers, and retailers operated completely separately from and under different rules than recreational marijuana producers, growers, and retailers.
  • However, a court ruled in 2014 that medical dispensaries (stores that only sell to medical marijuana patients) are illegal under current law.
    • The big sticking point: unlike the recreational industry, the medical marijuana industry is not regulated by any state agency.
  • As a result, on April 25, 2015, Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5052–the Cannabis Patient Protection Act–in to law, which drastically overhauled the medical marijuana industry in Washington state.

So what happened after July 1, 2016, when the new laws went into effect?

  • “All marijuana producers, processors, and retail stores must be licensed” (whether medical or recreational) by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, bringing the medical and recreational marijuana industries under the same regulatory umbrella.
  • This essentially closed all medical dispensaries since they were operating without I-502 licenses.
    • However, the WSLCB created an opportunity for medical dispensaries to submit applications to have their businesses converted to licensed recreational stores.
  • Medical patients begin buying their cannabis from recreational stores with a medical marijuana endorsement.
    • The endorsement means stores carry some products intended for medical use and train their staff to assist with medicinal purchases.
    • Medically endorsed stores can give away some medical cannabis for free to low-income patients.
  • Lastly, patients can join an optional patient registry.
    • Patients who join the registry can buy up to three ounces of cannabis at once, rather than the one ounce recreational customers can buy.
    • This is much less, however, than the 24 ounces patients were able to buy under the previous laws.
  • For a complete explanation of all the changes that occurred under the new law, check out this helpful and thorough guide from Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger.

So, do patients still retain the rights given to them under the original medical marijuana law?

They retain a modified version of their rights which are now much less patient-friendly than under prior medical marijuana laws. Patient laws and limits are listed below.

  • Patients may possess up to:
    • 3 ounces of “useable marijuana”
    • 48 ounces of infused product in solid form
    • 216 ounces of infused product in liquid form
    • 21 grams of concentrates
  • Patients may grow 4-6 marijuana plants for personal use
    • Patients on the state’s voluntary patient registry may cultivate 6 plants; unregistered patients can only grow 4
    • Registered patients may possess up to 8 ounces of useable marijuana produced from their own plants; unregistered patients may only possess 6 ounces
    • Originally, up to 4 patients were allowed to participate together in “collective gardens” where they could grow up to 60 total plants
      • But the statutes on “collective gardens” were repealed effective July 1, 2016 and replaced by more restrictive statutes authorizing “cooperatives” for the growing of marijuana for medical use
        • The cooperative must be located in the domicile of one of the participants and none of the marijuana that is grown can be sold to others
  • Just like recreational customers, patients must pay the state’s 37% excise tax on marijuana but they remain exempt from sales tax

Laws related to medical marijuana are likely to continue evolving in Washington State, but there are plenty of resources out there to keep you informed.

If you’re seeking authorization for medical marijuana in Washington, print out this form and take it to your doctor.

Buying Marijuana

You’re 21 years old and want to buy some marijuana. Where can you get it?

  • Adults 21 and over can only buy marijuana at licensed retail shops. That means:
    • No delivery services
    • No internet sales
    • No food trucks or restaurants selling marijuana-infused dishes
      • Note that some cities and municipalities have banned recreational marijuana sales altogether
  • As another reminder, all recreational cannabis bought in Washington must be consumed in Washington.
What to Expect at the Store
  • Shops are allowed to be open from 8 AM to 12 AM.
  • A doorman checks IDs before you buy, just like at a bar.
  • An ever-increasing variety of strains and edibles are becoming available.
  • There are no free samples.
  • Opened marijuana products are not allowed inside stores.
  • And neither is consumption. Just like opening a bottle in a liquor store is illegal, lighting up in a marijuana store is as well.
  • Certain kinds of paraphernalia–like pipes, bongs, and storage containers–will be on hand for purchase.
  • Other kinds of paraphernalia–for example, extraction equipment–will have to be purchased elsewhere.
  • Be prepared to pay cash since stores do not take credit cards or checks. But most stores will have an ATM on-site for customer convenience.

So now that you’ve bought marijuana, where can you smoke it?

  • It’s legal to smoke marijuana in Washington if you are:
    • On private property
    • Outside the view of the general public
      • If you own a home, you are free to consume your marijuana there
      • If you rent, this could be problematic if your residence is a non-smoking one or if your landlord has rules against marijuana use on his or her property
      • If you’re a tourist, this is an even bigger problem since many hotel rooms are non-smoking, and there are no real guidelines about marijuana consumption in hotels or rentals
      • The Seattle city attorney has made some recommendations for private club use to help address these problems, but no progress has been made to date
  • You can’t smoke marijuana:
    • In public
    • In view of the general public
    • At the retail shop where you bought it
    • Anywhere where smoking is banned
      • Which includes bars, restaurants, many hotels, and places of business
      • Concerts and sporting events
      • Anywhere it is prohibited to have an open container of alcohol
        • Which includes your vehicle
    • On federal land, which includes
      • National parks
      • Federal courthouses
      • National monuments
      • Military bases
    • On some Indian reservations

If caught smoking marijuana somewhere that it is banned, you will not go to jail. You’ll simply be asked to cease your consumption and you may be fined around $100, but that’s it. (This does not apply to federal land since the feds have their own marijuana-related laws.)

What the General Public Thinks
  • Much of Washington has embraced legalization, though not to the extent of the “Green Rush” in Colorado. As the state continues to issue more licenses, more recreational stores will be opening across Washington.
  • Consumers certainly spoke with their wallets–to the tune of $1 billion in sales over the first two years after recreational stores opened.
  • Of course, not everybody was on board with legalization–considering that 45% of the state voted against it.

Police Enforcement

Driving High

In an effort to gain public support for the initiative and to increase safety, I-502 made “drugged driving” illegal in Washington State. If you drive high, you can get a DUI and you will face the same penalties as with a DUI.

What it means to drive high:

  • The THC content of your blood cannot surpass 5 nanograms per milliliter.
    • This doesn’t translate to a set amount of marijuana intake, but it’s actually not much at all, and it really depends on the person, their size, and their tolerance levels/
    • A local Seattle news station sought to find out “how much is too much to be on the road”–the video is pretty entertaining.
  • Many cannabis activists and DUI lawyers suggest never driving after consuming marijuana in Washington since the THC content limit is so low.
  • There is not yet a breathalyzer test for marijuana, so THC content is measured through a blood test.
  • The state’s open container law has been updated to include marijuana.
    • This means, like with alcohol, marijuana must be kept:
      • In your trunk
      • In an unopened container
      • Or “in another part of the passenger cabin ‘not normally occupied or directly accessible by’ the driver or passengers.”

How an officer can stop you:

  • An officer can stop you for another offense, such as speeding, an illegal turn, etc.
  • And they can stop you f they have probable cause that you are driving impaired. This includes:
    • Swerving
    • Illegal actions (speeding, etc.)
    • Other suspicious driving activity

What happens when they stop you:

  • They will conduct a field sobriety test, just like for alcohol
  • They may consult a drug recognition expert
  • If probable cause is established, you will be taken to a precinct where you will be asked for permission to draw your blood
    • If you refuse and the officer thinks you’re under the influence of drugs, he or she can get a warrant from a judge to draw your blood
  • If you were involved in a serious accident, a blood draw is mandatory

If a blood test reveals a driver to be under the influence of marijuana, the state can automatically suspend their license.

Penalties for a first offense include:

  • Imprisonment of 1 day to 1 year
  • A fine of $350 up to $5,000
  • License suspension for 90 days
    • You may also be required to install an ignition interlock device
  • A fee of $200 fee to cover the cost of the drug test

Read the Washington State laws on driving drugged.

Other Legal Information

State laws:

  • Public Intoxication or Disruption
    • While there aren’t specific laws for being high in public, in general, most marijuana law follows that of alcohol. If you’re disorderly and under the influence of marijuana, you can be arrested.
  • Possession of More Than an Ounce
    • Up to 40 grams is a misdemeanor, with 1-90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
    • More than 40 grams is a felony, with up to 5 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
  • Possession with Intent to Distribute
    • Any amount is a felony with up to 5 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
    • Distributing to a minor is a felony that carries up to a 10 year sentence and a $10,000 fine.
    • Any possession with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of a school, school bus stop, public park, or other locations doubles the fines and imprisonment time.
  • Cultivation
    • Any amount cultivated without a retail grower’s license can result in a felony conviction with 5 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
    • Prison lengths and fines double when cultivation takes place within 1000 feet of a school, school bus stop, public park, or other locations.
  • For a great explanation of crimes and penalties, see NORML’s list of Washington Laws & Penalties.

City and municipal laws:

  • Some cities and municipalities have passed their own marijuana laws, including the ban of retail stores within their city limits. Be sure you know the laws before you light up.

Going Into Business


The Washington State Liquor Control Board initially segmented the cannabis retail supply chain into three parts (producers, processors, and retailers) but later added 2 additional license types for a current total of 5:

  • Producer: the growers
  • Processor: the companies that ready marijuana for sale and consumption
  • Retailer: the stores that sell marijuana
  • Common carrier/transportation: businesses that transport marijuana between producers, processors, and retailers
    • This includes ferry routes
  • Research: facilities that conduct marijuana-related research

The WSLCB initially accepted license applications during a 30-day window in late 2013, but then began accepting applications again in October 2015.

  • Originally, the application period had no end date, no maximum number of potential shops, and no lottery for deciding who got a license.
    • There was also no cap on the amount of producer, processor, or retail licenses the WSLCB planned to issue.
  • Businesses were allowed to hold more than one license but no more than 3 of them could be retail licenses.
    • And one business could hold no more than 33% of the allowed licenses in any city or county
    • Each type of license required its own application
  • The application fee was $250 per application (non-refundable), and every license required a $1000 annual renewal fee.
  • While the application process itself has not changed, as of summer, 2016, the WSLCB stopped accepting applications for producers, processors and retailers and has not yet resumed.
    • The state took this action because the number of high-priority applicants reached the point that it far exceeded the number of available licenses in each category.
    • Common carrier/transportation licenses are still available, however, and the state continues to accept applications for them.
    • The state had originally indicated it would begin accepting applications for research licenses in March 2017, but the date has now been pushed back based on requirements in the research licensure law.
  • You can keep up with the latest status of the application process in Washington here.
Who Can Apply for a License
  • You must be a Washington resident who can prove three months residency
  • You must be current on your taxes
  • If you have a felony conviction in the last 10 years, you’re disqualified
After Getting a License

Washington’s rules and regulations for getting licensed in the marijuana industry–as a grower, processor, or retailer–are very complicated and (some say overly) stringent. If you want to learn more than the basics we’ve provided above, you can:


Of course, one of the chief reasons for legalizing marijuana is to allow the state to collect taxes on it–and in the State of Washington, they do, indeed, tax cannabis.

Retail marijuana was originally taxed three times when I-502 initially went into effect:

  • The producer paid a 25% tax on the selling price of each sale from producer to processor
  • The processor paid a 25% tax on the selling price of each sale from processor to retailer
  • And then finally, the consumer paid a 25% tax on the sales price of the end product.

But in July, 2015, a new measure was passed that compressed the three-tier tax structure into one 37% tax at the point of retail sale (that’s in addition to any other applicable state and local sales taxes).  The measure also directed the state to share the tax bounty with cities and counties in an effort to encourage those local governments to allow marijuana businesses to open.

Where does the tax money go?

  • All taxes are deposited in the Dedicated Marijuana Fund. Then the dollars go to:
    • Healthcare
    • Substance abuse prevention programs
    • Marijuana education efforts
    • The state’s General Fund
    • Research on cannabis at the University of Washington and Washington State University
    • Dropout prevention programs

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Washington’s non-medical marijuana sales have passed the $1 billion mark since 2014. This has generated more than $250 million in marijuana excise tax revenue for the state.

Growing Pot

Personal Use

Washington’s original law makes it clear: you cannot grow your own recreational marijuana.

But a new bill–HB-1092–was introduced by State Representative Sherry Appleton in early 2017 to allow individuals over the age of 21 to grow up to 6 marijuana plants (12 per household). It will be voted on by the House and Senate in the summer of 2017.

If you’re a medical marijuana patient, you can grow up to 6 plants and/or participate in a community garden. Read up on medical marijuana laws related to cultivation.

Commercial Use

If you obtain your producers’ license in Washington after they begin accepting applications again in the future, you can grow marijuana and then sell it to a licensed processor.

You can grow:

  • Indoors
    • The facility must be fully enclosed, secure, and have rigid walls, a roof, and doors
  • Outdoors
    • The area must be fully enclosed by a fence or other barrier, obscured from public view, and meet other security requirements

Additional – and extensive – guidelines for acceptable commercial growing facilities can be read here.

Resource Guide