Tag Archives: legalized

Illicit marijuana farms decimate western wildlife

Tony Magarrell isn’t very relaxed for someone who just spent a week in the lush backcountry canyons of Lassen National Forest, 165 miles northwest of Reno.

Magarrell, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, wasn’t there to enjoy roaring waterfalls or abundant wildlife. He was cleaning up an illicit marijuana operation, a job that gives him a front-row seat to environmental wreckage most people will never see, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“This site has pretty much taken over the whole drainage out here,” said Magarrell of the 60-acre site that yielded about 6,000 pounds of trash, much of it in the form of hazardous chemicals. “It’s been a long week.”

The bags of trash hauled out by helicopter provided evidence of the damage illicit grows can do to the environment. But the damage goes far beyond the trash left behind.

Environmental damage from the grow sites includes widespread sickness and death among wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

On U.S. Forest Service land in California alone, authorities have identified more than 400 sites in the past two years with an estimated 1.7 million plants. Although hundreds of sites are identified, only a fraction of them are actually remediated. The number of cleanups fluctuates with availability of personnel and funding, Magarrell said.

Law enforcement officials report frequent instances of wildlife poaching by people working at the sites. Even more damaging than poaching is the mass amounts of poison associated with grow sites. That poison is killing wildlife at the site and being carried away by animals that consume it and die elsewhere.

Magarrell suspects the Burney site was the work of large drug trafficking operators from Mexico, who law enforcement believe are behind most major grows, and the environmental damage they cause.

Similar grow sites have been found in Nevada, although they are smaller and much fewer in number. In recent years, officials have found grows with trash, fertilizer and rat poison in the Spring Mountain National Forest Recreation Area near Las Vegas, the Austin Tonopah Ranger District in central Nevada and the Ely Ranger District in White Pine County.

Both California and Nevada voters have recently approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession and issue licenses for marijuana businesses. But it’s too soon to tell if that will affect illicit grows in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. That’s because the vast majority of what’s grown illicitly is sold through black market channels, which still exist because most states and the federal government still consider marijuana to be illegal.

In 2014, Chris Boehm, assistant director of law enforcement and investigations for the Forest Service, estimated drug trafficking organizations are operating in 72 national forests in 22 states.

“It is a national issue, it is not a California issue,” Magarrell said.

Research quantifies environmental damage

The site near Burney, which Magarrell said was typical for illicit grows, contained tons of evidence of environmental damage.

Law enforcement officials identified three camps each with its own dump sites, 18 miles of pipe diverting water from a creek, 11,360 pounds of trash, 1,250 pounds of fertilizer and a host of toxic chemicals.

The list included: insecticides such as Lorsban 480 EM, Sevin carbaryl and Malathion, the rat poison Bromethalin, Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which can be used as a pesticide and plant hormone concentrate Hormoviton Calor.

The growers use the chemicals for several purposes. Insecticides and herbicides can be used to prevent weeds and insects from damaging the plants, and the fertilizers promote growth.

Rat poison is often spread around the sites in copious amounts to kill everything from rodents to deer that might damage the plants.

The poison is particularly destructive because it often has a pleasant taste to attract animals, which encourages them to eat it.

When other animals, such as owls, mountain lions or bears, scavenge the contaminated carcasses, they can become sick as well.

“A deer is not going to eat a mouse, but if you have 90 pounds of peanut-butter-flavored rodenticide out there, (the deer) just walks in and starts eating the pellets,” said Mourad Gabriel, executive director and senior ecologist at Integral Ecology Research Center and one of the few researchers dedicated to studying ecological impact of illicit grow sites. “It is mimicking the potential legacy effects that other chemicals like DDT have done with wildlife.”

Gabriel, along with co-researcher Greta Wengert, is considered a leading researcher in the field thanks to his efforts to survey grow sites and document the spread of environmental damage.

His research shows the damage is widespread and affects species and habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada, where there are thought to be hundreds, or even thousands, of illicit grow sites.

Gabriel’s most prominent research found rat poison contamination in 85 percent of fisher carcasses tested for all of California. Fishers are forest-dwelling animals related to wolverines, minks and otters.

Gabriel’s research suggests, “contamination is widespread within the fisher’s range in California, which encompasses mostly public forest and park lands.”

The effects go beyond fishers. Gabriel has detected contamination in 67 percent of spotted owls tested.

And he’s documented contamination in black-tailed deer, bears, fox and upland game birds.

One trail camera photo from a grow site in a prime hunting zone captured a trophy buck browsing in a pile of refuse and poison at a grow site.

“This is a deer people would wait a lifetime to hunt,” Gabriel said. “Yet we have these folks who are in there illegally poaching them and illegally poisoning them.”

Important, but dangerous, work

The research is important because it quantifies environmental damage from illicit grows, an overlooked problem.

Recent statewide votes in California and Nevada in favor of relaxing anti-marijuana statutes show much of the public is ambivalent about prohibition.

Environmental damage, however, is a separate issue. Much of the public cares deeply about protecting wildlife and public land and the people who work on cleaning up grow sites want people to know about the damage.

“I believe the research that Mourad and Greta are doing should have already rattled the cages of every environmentalist, every hunter, anybody who gives a damn,” said Kary Schlick, a Forest Service wildlife biologist who has worked on spotted owl research.

The notion of prosecuting growers, when they’re caught, for environment-related offenses in addition to drug offenses is gaining steam among some prosecutors.

Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California in Fresno, cited cases in which prosecutors highlighted environmental damage as a key component in making cases against growers.

In one case a grower was sentenced for producing plants in the Canebrake Ecological Reserve in Kern County.

In the statement announcing the guilty plea prosecutors highlighted the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the area above the number of plants.

“It was first inhabited in about 1000 B.C. by the Tubatulabel culture and is currently home to numerous rare and protected plants and animals, including the federally protected golden and bald eagles and peregrine falcon, the federally threatened California red-legged frog and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher,” they wrote in the statement.

In another statement announcing a 10-year sentence against a grower they highlighted the grower’s, “involvement in a toxic marijuana cultivation operation in the Greenhorn Creek area of the Sequoia National Forest.”

Escobar credited the work of Gabriel and other researchers for providing much needed data in the effort to enhance sentences for environmental offenses related to illicit grows.

When Boehm described the problem to the sentencing commission he said armed guards are a threat to the safety of employees and visitors and cultivation techniques damage the environment.

“It is unknown how many tons of fertilizers, gallons of toxic liquids, or pounds of solid poisons are applied and used during the cultivation process on our public lands,” he testified. “However, we do know that the impacts are significant and far reaching.”

Despite the importance of data to efforts to eradicate damage from grows research into the problem is still limited.

That’s due in part to the fact it can be dangerous to researchers.

Gabriel has been subjected to threats, including the poisoning of his dog with rat poison in 2014. Authorities in Humboldt County, Calif., offered a $20,000 reward but did not identify any suspects.

And Schlick said she’s had to pull spotted owl researchers from the field in Northern California because they were encountering signs of dangerous cartel activity.

“What does it mean to the environment? We are diminishing our survey efforts and possibly not surveying anymore because the risk is too great,” Schlick said. “The quality of the data is at risk.”

Pot and profit: Business owners replace idealists in marijuana movement

Business owners are replacing idealists in the pot-legalization movement as the nascent marijuana industry creates a broad base of new donors, many of them entrepreneurs willing to spend to change drug policy.

Unlike in the past, these supporters are not limited to a few wealthy people seeking change for personal reasons. They constitute a bigger coalition of business interests. And their support provides a significant financial advantage for pro-legalization campaigns.

“It’s mainly a social-justice movement. But undoubtedly there are business interests at work, which is new in this movement,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, a one-time pot-shop owner and now head of a Denver marijuana consulting firm.

The donors offer a wider foundation of support for the marijuana-related measures on the ballot next month in nine states. The campaigns are still largely funded by national advocacy organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project and the New Approach PAC. But those groups are less reliant on billionaire activists.

On the other side, legalization opponents are attracting new support from businesses as diverse as trucking, pharmaceuticals and even gambling.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., followed in 2014. The result is a bigger pool of existing businesses that see expansion potential in more states authorizing use of the drug.

Take Darren Roberts of Boca Raton, Florida, co-founder of High There!, a social network for fans of pot. He donated $500 this year to a campaign to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Florida. Roberts is also encouraging his customers to donate to legalization campaigns in their own states.

“I would say it’s a combination of both the philanthropic social interest and the potential financial interest,” Roberts said.

All five states considering recreational marijuana _ Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada _ have seen more money flowing to groups that favor legalization than to those fighting it. The same is true in the four states considering starting or reinstating medical marijuana _ Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.

The donors who contribute to anti-legalization efforts have changed, too.

Some deep-pocket donors who drove opposition campaigns in years past are opening their pocketbooks again.

Casino owner Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, for example, gave some $5 million in 2014 to oppose a medical-pot measure in Florida. This year, as his home state considers recreational pot and Florida takes a second look at medical marijuana, Adelson has spent $2 million on opposition in Nevada and $1 million to oppose legalization in Massachusetts.

Other casinos are donating to Nevada opposition efforts, too, including MGM Resorts International and Atlantis Casino & Resort. Nevada gambling regulators have warned that marijuana violates federal law.

Some new opponents have also emerged, moving beyond the typical anti-pot base that includes law enforcement groups, alcohol companies and drug-treatment interests.

A pharmaceutical company that is working on a synthetic version of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, Insys Therapeutics Inc., has given at least $500,000 to oppose full marijuana legalization in its home state of Arizona.

The company did not return a message for comment on the donation. Company officials said in a statement last month that Insys opposes the Arizona ballot measure because marijuana’s safety has not been demonstrated through the federal regulatory process.

Other new names popping up in opposition disclosures include U-Haul, which gave $25,000 to oppose legalization in Arizona, and Julie Schauer, a Pennsylvania retiree who gave more than $1 million to a group opposing legalization. Neither returned messages seeking comment on their donations.

Smaller donors to opposition campaigns say they are hopelessly outgunned by the young pot industry, but are giving out of a sense of duty.

“Everyone’s talking about it like it’s a done deal, but I can’t sit by when I’ve seen firsthand the destruction that marijuana does to people,” said Howard Samuels, a drug-treatment therapist in Los Angeles who donated some $20,000 to oppose recreational legalization in California.

Samuels and other marijuana opponents insist that the pot industry cynically hopes to get more people addicted to the drug to line its own pockets, comparing pot providers to tobacco companies.

But marijuana-industry donors insist that they are simply carrying on a tradition started by the tie-dye wearing drug activists who pushed legalization long before there was any business model attached to it. They insist they would contribute financially even without any money-making potential.

“When a movement becomes an industry, of course the advocacy picture gets shuffled,” said Bob Hoban, a Denver attorney specializing in marijuana law and a $1,000 donor to the Marijuana Policy Project. “It shifts away from activists to more traditional business interests, because the skill sets don’t exactly transfer.”

Ho, ho, health: North Pole won’t block pot sales

North Pole residents can put marijuana on their Christmas list next year.

The city council in North Pole, Alaska, rejected a measure this week that would have banned marijuana dispensaries. Marijuana became legal in Alaska in February, and sales begin next year.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported even Santa Claus — yes, that’s his real name — testified in favor of selling pot in this Christmas-themed town, where light poles resemble candy canes.

Claus said he is medical marijuana patient, and he’d like to buy pot in North Pole instead of making the short drive to Fairbanks.

Some worried how others might perceive North Pole if marijuana dispensaries are allowed. But one council member noted North Pole already allows the sale of alcohol, cigarettes and guns.

Mexico City may legalize marijuana possession, sales

Leftist lawmakers on Feb. 13 proposed allowing the sale of marijuana within Mexico City, seeking to join Uruguay and the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado in creating legal markets for the drug.

The bill is vague on many key points and faces legal hurdles that may be impossible to overcome but it creates at least the possibility of an island of legalization of one drug in a nation that has been devastated by the fallout from the U.S.-backed fight to stop the northbound flow of recreational narcotics.

Most legislators in the Mexico City assembly haven’t said whether they back the proposal, but the local legislature controlled by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party is the most liberal in Mexico and has previously legalized abortion and gay marriage. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera supports the plan.

Approval could force a legal showdown with the federal government, which would have to decide whether to effectively override the local law by enforcing federal laws barring drug trafficking, challenging the city law in the courts, or both. President Enrique Pena Nieto has come out against drug legalization, which he says will not reduce the violence that has left tens of thousands dead across the country over the last seven years.

The initiative would allow stores in the city of 8 million to sell marijuana in amounts up to 5 grams. The bill envisages a limit on the cumulative amount that each business could sell, but doesn’t specify what that could be. Since 2009, Mexican federal law has allowed the possession of no more than 5 grams of marijuana, about four joints, for personal use, but it still requires the arrest of anyone caught buying or selling any amount.

The bill is silent on the number of stores that would be allowed, or how marijuana sales would be regulated, taxed and enforced.

The sponsors are also asking allies in the federal congress to push forward with a law that would legalize marijuana production throughout the country, effectively providing a source for any legal pot shops. That federal bill, which also proposes allowing Mexicans to legally possess up to 30 grams of marijuana, is almost certain to go nowhere in the national legislature, which is dominated by Pena Nieto’s party and the conservative National Action Party.

The proposal in Mexico City’s assembly also doesn’t specify if it would allow only city residents to buy pot.

The bill’s sponsors acknowledged many details remain to be worked out, but called it an important step in fueling Mexican discussion about marijuana legalization, a topic that has gained major momentum with the legalization of sales in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay. Many Mexicans find it increasingly absurd that their country is spending money and law-enforcement effort to keep marijuana from crossing the northern border into a country where it is already legal for millions of people.

While the Mexico City bill would have little to no effect on the larger cross-border drug trade, sponsor Vidal Llerenas called it a move toward allowing authorities to focus on more serious crimes.

“Mexico needs to lead a discussion about how we can deal with drugs in a different way,” Llerenas said.

The initiative “puts Mexico City in a leading position in Latin America,” said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “Rather than continue fighting a war that makes no sense, now we are joining a cutting-edge process,” he added.

Mexico has seen a slight increase in drug use in the last few years, according to health authorities and marijuana remains the most commonly used drug.

Mexican Assistant Interior Secretary Roberto Campa said that so far there is no plan to challenge the initiatives, but stressed that both require a deeper analysis before their approval.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said it is not his administration’s priority to prosecute marijuana use and has allowed the Colorado and Washington plans to proceed without federal action against them.

Uruguay last year became the first country to legalize the production and commercialization of marijuana nationwide.

18 lawmakers sponsoring Wisconsin medical marijuana bill

Wisconsin state Rep. Chris Taylor and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach say their medical marijuana bill has 18 co-sponsors.

That number includes Taylor, a Democrat from Madison, and Erpenbach, a Democrat from Middleton.

Others who’ve signed on to push for passage of the Jacki Rickert Medical Cannabis Act include Reps. Chris Danou, D-Trempeleau; Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha); Terese Berceau, D-Madison; Fred Clark, D-Baraboo; Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay; Diane Hesselbein, D-Middleton; Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood; Sony Pope, D-Cross Plains; Melissa Sargent, D-Madison; Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point; Leon Young, D-Milwaukee and Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee.

In the state Senate, co-sponsors include Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee; Tim Cullen, D-Janesville; Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee and John Lehman, D-Racine.

The bill now goes to the Assembly and Senate clerks for bill numbers and committee assignments.

Chicago Cardinal George says gay marriage unnatural, threat to human dignity

Chicago Cardinal Francis George opened 2013 with a renewed campaign against equality in Illinois. George and six bishops, leaders of the Catholic Church in the state, released a letter saying legalizing gay marriage is against nature and God.

Illinois Democrats hope to deliver a gay marriage bill to Gov. Pat Quinn this month, possibly as early as next week. The legislation, which could be introduced in the state senate on Jan. 2, is called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act because the bill does not require religious institutions to celebrate same-sex marriages or their leaders to officiate at gay weddings.

George says the bill ignores basic truths and that gay marriage is unnatural because same-sex couples cannot consummate a marriage.

He writes, “Marriage comes to us from nature. The human species comes in two complementary sexes, male and female. Their sexual union is called marital. It not only creates a place of love for two adults but also a home for loving and raising their children. It provides the biological basis for personal identity.

“It is physically impossible for two men or two women to consummate a marriage, even when they share a deep friendship or love. Does this mean nature is cruel or that God is unfair? No, but it does mean that marriage is what nature tells us it is and that the State cannot change natural marriage. Civil laws that establish “same-sex marriage” create a legal fiction. The State has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible.”

George says if lawmakers enact a gay marriage law “it will be acting against the common good of society. We will all have to pretend to accept something that is contrary to the common sense of the human race,” that the “natural family is undermined” and “human dignity and human rights are then reduced to the whims of political majorities.”

The cardinal urges members of the church to go to a Website – www.ilcatholic.org – for information and updates on the issue.

George, in the letter, also claims that the Archdiocese of Chicago “has consistently condemned violence toward or hatred of homosexually oriented men and women. Good pastoral practice encourages families to accept all their children and not break relationships with them.”

Gay civil rights activists challenged that the cardinal’s assertion ignores basic facts and that George has been a leader in the U.S. church’s attempt to block civil or equal rights for LGBT people and he has repeatedly made anti-gay statements, including one comparing civil rights activists to the KKK.

“I don’t really think the cardinal knows what is natural or unnatural,” said gay rights activist Paul Frazier of Rock Island, Ill., who was considering a organizing a demonstration. “He certainly doesn’t know right from wrong.”

Wedding bells ring for gay couples in Maryland

Same-sex couples in Maryland were greeted with cheers and noisemakers held over from New Year’s Eve parties, as gay marriage became legal in the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line on New Year’s Day.

James Scales, 68, was married to William Tasker, 60, on Jan. 1 shortly after midnight by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake inside City Hall.

“It’s just so hard to believe it’s happening,” Scales said shortly before marrying his partner of 35 years.

Six other same-sex couples also were being married at City Hall. Ceremonies were taking place in other parts of the state as well.

The ceremonies follow a legislative fight that pitted Gov. Martin O’Malley against leaders of his Catholic faith. Voters in the state, founded by Catholics in the 17th century, sealed the change by approving a November ballot question.

“There is no human institution more sacred than that of the one that you are about to form,” Rawlings-Blake said during the brief ceremony. “True marriage, true marriage, is the dearest of all earthly relationships.”

Brigitte Ronnett, who also was married, said she hopes one day to see full federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Maryland, Maine and Washington state were the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, in November, a development Ronnett said was significant.

“I think it’s a great sign when you see that popular opinion is now in favor of this,” said Ronnett, 51, who married Lisa Walther, 51, at City Hall.

Same-sex couples in Maryland have been able to get marriage licenses since Dec. 6, but they did not take effect until Tuesday.

In 2011, same-sex marriage legislation passed in the state Senate but stalled in the House of Delegates. O’Malley hadn’t made the issue a key part of his 2011 legislative agenda, but indicated that summer that he was considering backing a measure similar to New York’s law, which includes exemptions for religious organizations.

Shortly after, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore wrote to O’Malley that same-sex marriage went against the governor’s faith.

“As advocates for the truths we are compelled to uphold, we speak with equal intensity and urgency in opposition to your promoting a goal that so deeply conflicts with your faith, not to mention the best interests of our society,” wrote O’Brien, who served as archbishop of the nation’s first diocese from October 2007 to August 2011.

The governor was not persuaded. He held a news conference in July 2011 to announce that he would make same-sex marriage a priority in the 2012 legislative session. He wrote back to the archbishop that “when shortcomings in our laws bring about a result that is unjust, I have a public obligation to try to change that injustice.”

The measure, with exemptions for religious organizations that choose not to marry gay couples, passed the House of Delegates in February in a close vote. O’Malley signed it in March. Opponents then gathered enough signatures to put the bill to a statewide vote, and it passed with 52 percent in favor.

In total, nine states and the District of Columbia have approved same-sex marriage. The other states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Maryland gay couples marry at midnight

Same-sex couples in Maryland were greeted with cheers and noisemakers held over from New Year’s Eve parties, as gay marriage became legal in the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line on New Year’s Day.

James Scales, 68, was married to William Tasker, 60, on Jan. 1 shortly after midnight by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake inside City Hall.

“It’s just so hard to believe it’s happening,” Scales said shortly before marrying his partner of 35 years.

Six other same-sex couples also were being married at City Hall. Ceremonies were taking place in other parts of the state as well.

The ceremonies follow a legislative fight that pitted Gov. Martin O’Malley against leaders of his Catholic faith. Voters in the state, founded by Catholics in the 17th century, sealed the change by approving a November ballot question.

“There is no human institution more sacred than that of the one that you are about to form,” Rawlings-Blake said during the brief ceremony. “True marriage, true marriage, is the dearest of all earthly relationships.”

Brigitte Ronnett, who also was married, said she hopes one day to see full federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Maryland, Maine and Washington state were the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, in November, a development Ronnett said was significant.

“I think it’s a great sign when you see that popular opinion is now in favor of this,” said Ronnett, 51, who married Lisa Walther, 51, at City Hall.

Same-sex couples in Maryland have been able to get marriage licenses since Dec. 6, but they did not take effect until Tuesday.

In 2011, same-sex marriage legislation passed in the state Senate but stalled in the House of Delegates. O’Malley hadn’t made the issue a key part of his 2011 legislative agenda, but indicated that summer that he was considering backing a measure similar to New York’s law, which includes exemptions for religious organizations.

Shortly after, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore wrote to O’Malley that same-sex marriage went against the governor’s faith.

“As advocates for the truths we are compelled to uphold, we speak with equal intensity and urgency in opposition to your promoting a goal that so deeply conflicts with your faith, not to mention the best interests of our society,” wrote O’Brien, who served as archbishop of the nation’s first diocese from October 2007 to August 2011.

The governor was not persuaded. He held a news conference in July 2011 to announce that he would make same-sex marriage a priority in the 2012 legislative session. He wrote back to the archbishop that “when shortcomings in our laws bring about a result that is unjust, I have a public obligation to try to change that injustice.”

The measure, with exemptions for religious organizations that choose not to marry gay couples, passed the House of Delegates in February in a close vote. O’Malley signed it in March. Opponents then gathered enough signatures to put the bill to a statewide vote, and it passed with 52 percent in favor.

In total, nine states and the District of Columbia have approved same-sex marriage. The other states are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Popularity of Caribbean island soars after gay wedding

A speck of an island in the Dutch Caribbean has become increasingly popular with gay couples after legislators legalized same-sex marriages in a region still openly hostile to gays and lesbians.

Two men were recently married in Saba, marking the first ceremony of its kind in the region and setting off a frenzy of calls from gay couples in other Dutch Caribbean islands seeking to marry, said Julietta Woods with Saba’s Civil Registry office.”People keep calling me every second,” she said by telephone this week.

As part of the Netherlands Kingdom, the islands of Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius have to recognize same-sex marriages. While Bonaire and St. Eustatius have balked at the idea of legalizing such unions, the idea has been embraced in Saba, long considered a gay-friendly destination.

“We’ve seen it as a human rights issue,” said Saba council member Carl Buncamper, who is openly gay. “It is important to give the partners equal rights when it comes to inheritance and other benefits.”

Dozens of gay couples cheered Saba’s unprecedented step, noting that gays often face taunts, threats and even death elsewhere in the Caribbean, with many islands enforcing so-called buggery laws implemented in colonial times. Some islands also have tried to amend their constitution to establish that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

While Saba currently stands alone in approving same-sex marriages, Bonaire and St. Eustatius are expected to follow.

The Netherlands, which in 2001 became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriages, is giving those islands more time to adopt the same law amid local opposition. The Netherlands has said local governments should use the time to help communities get used to the idea of gay marriage.

The other Dutch Caribbean islands of St. Maarten, Curacao and Aruba have to recognize same-sex marriages but don’t have to legalize them because they have a more autonomous relationship with the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, the nearby French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are expected to soon debate the issue as France prepares to vote early next year on whether to legalize same-sex marriages.

In Saba, it took legislators several years to adopt the law and ensure that procedures were in place. On Dec. 4, officials married Xiomar Alexander Gonzalez and Israel Ernesto Ruiz in a civil ceremony at the island’s courthouse.

The two men live together in Aruba and wanted to make their union official, dressing in all white to celebrate the occasion. Gonzalez said people in Saba were very welcoming.

Aruba does not allow same-sex marriages, but that could eventually change, said Desiree Croes, Aruba’s first openly gay Parliament member. Croes had planned to marry to her partner in Saba, but they ended up marrying Dec. 12 in the Netherlands to celebrate with more family and friends.

Although Aruba is supposed to recognize same-sex marriages, it has struggled to do so. In 2005, the island’s Superior Court ordered the government to register the union of two women who complained their 2001 marriage in the Netherlands wasn’t recognized locally.

Croes said she believes her marriage will pave the way for others.

“It will take time to change the minds completely,” she said. “We still get stares, but the good thing is that people don’t criticize us openly.”

Smokers light up as Washington legalizes pot

The crowds of happy people lighting joints under Seattle’s Space Needle early Thursday morning with nary a police officer in sight bespoke the new reality: Marijuana is legal under Washington state law.

Hundreds gathered at Seattle Center for a New Year’s Eve-style countdown to 12 a.m., when the legalization measure passed by voters last month took effect. When the clock struck, they cheered and sparked up in unison.

A few dozen people gathered on a sidewalk outside the north Seattle headquarters of the annual Hempfest celebration and did the same, offering joints to reporters and blowing smoke into television news cameras.

“I feel like a kid in a candy store!” shouted Hempfest volunteer Darby Hageman. “It’s all becoming real now!”

Washington and Colorado became the first states to vote to decriminalize and regulate the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by adults over 21. Both measures call for setting up state licensing schemes for pot growers, processors and retail stores. Colorado’s law is set to take effect by Jan. 5.

Technically, Washington’s new marijuana law still forbids smoking pot in public, which remains punishable by a fine, like drinking in public. But pot fans wanted a party, and Seattle police weren’t about to write them any tickets.

In another sweeping change for Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage. The state joins several others that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.

The mood was festive in Seattle as dozens of gay and lesbian couples got in line to pick up marriage licenses at the King County auditor’s office early Thursday.

King County and Thurston County announced they would open their auditors’ offices shortly after midnight Wednesday to accommodate those who wanted to be among the first to get their licenses.

Kelly Middleton and her partner Amanda Dollente got in line at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Hours later, as the line grew, volunteers distributed roses and a group of men and women serenaded the waiting line to the tune of “Going to the Chapel.”

Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.

In dealing with marijuana, the Seattle Police Department told its 1,300 officers on Wednesday, just before legalization took hold, that until further notice they shall not issue citations for public marijuana use.

Officers will be advising people not to smoke in public, police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee wrote on the SPD Blotter. “The police department believes that, under state law, you may responsibly get baked, order some pizzas and enjoy a ‘Lord of the Rings’ marathon in the privacy of your own home, if you want to.”

He offered a catchy new directive referring to the film “The Big Lebowski,” popular with many marijuana fans: “The Dude abides, and says ‘take it inside!’”

“This is a big day because all our lives we’ve been living under the iron curtain of prohibition,” said Hempfest director Vivian McPeak. “The whole world sees that prohibition just took a body blow.”

Washington’s new law decriminalizes possession of up to an ounce for those over 21, but for now selling marijuana remains illegal. I-502 gives the state a year to come up with a system of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores, with the marijuana taxed 25 percent at each stage. Analysts have estimated that a legal pot market could bring Washington hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new tax revenue for schools, health care and basic government functions.

But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That means federal agents can still arrest people for it, and it’s banned from federal properties, including military bases and national parks.

The Justice Department has not said whether it will sue to try to block the regulatory schemes in Washington and Colorado from taking effect.

“The department’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged,” said a statement issued Wednesday by the Seattle U.S. attorney’s office. “Neither states nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress” – a non-issue, since the measures passed in Washington and Colorado don’t “nullify” federal law, which federal agents remain free to enforce.

The legal question is whether the establishment of a regulated marijuana market would “frustrate the purpose” of the federal pot prohibition, and many constitutional law scholars say it very likely would.

That leaves the political question of whether the administration wants to try to block the regulatory system, even though it would remain legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana.

Alison Holcomb is the drug policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and served as the campaign manager for New Approach Washington, which led the legalization drive. She said the voters clearly showed they’re done with marijuana prohibition.

“New Approach Washington sponsors and the ACLU look forward to working with state and federal officials and to ensure the law is fully and fairly implemented,” she said.