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Sunday, May 12, 2013 - Page updated at 10:30 p.m.

Seattle’s top cop joins rally for ‘cannabis freedom’

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times reporter

In a sign of how far and how fast mainstream attitudes about pot have shifted in Washington state, Seattle’s top cop drew cheers Saturday when he addressed a crowd of several hundred people at the annual Cannabis Freedom March at Westlake Center.

Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel chose his words carefully.

“We are not here to condemn it. We are not here to endorse it,” he said of marijuana use. “The police are here to make sure it is all done legally.”

But after he left the stage, Pugel laughed when asked if he could have imagined addressing such a gathering early in his career.

“Hell, no,” he said.

Working undercover, Pugel used to bust people for buying pot — an offense that carried a one- to three-year sentence in the 1980s. “That’s what the law said we should do back then,” he said.

Washington residents changed all that last November, when they voted to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use by adults.

Just feet from where Pugel stood, dozens of people were lighting up and munching on cannabis-infused snacks inside a 40-foot-long “smoking tent.” Though it’s still forbidden to use pot in public, it’s now legal in the privacy of your own home — or tent, said Kris Vincel, who was checking IDs at the entrance to ensure that only people over 21 were partaking.

Pugel thanked the crowd for mostly keeping their weed out of sight.

“Please respect your police officers and don’t use it in front of them,” he said.

Obligingly, a group of men who had been puffing on cigar-sized spliffs and mugging for cameras melted out of sight while Pugel was on the stage.

After he exited, though, another group began conspicuously packing pipes and lighting up in front of the stage.

In another twist that would have been unheard of not long ago, one elected law-enforcement official used the rally to stump for support for a second term. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes reminded some of his most loyal constituents that when he ran for office four years ago — advocating decriminalization of marijuana — people could still be sent to jail for having a joint in their pocket.

“We’ve got to stop and pinch ourselves,” he said. “We’ve made amazing, amazing progress.”

Pot remains illegal under federal laws, and Holmes and other speakers called for those rules to be rewritten.

Some of the afternoon’s biggest applause was reserved for an unlikely crowd-pleaser: the chair of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Sharon Foster got a hero’s reception because the body she leads is charged with setting up a system to license and regulate marijuana growers, processors and stores.

“You set us on a journey that’s never, ever been tried in the world as we are trying it today,” she said. “Give yourselves a big hand.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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