By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - City bus drivers in Seattle are under orders to handle small amounts of marijuana left behind by passengers as normal lost-and-found items that can be recovered by their rightful owners, now that pot is legal under state law, a transit official said on Friday.
"We collect a lot of things on Metro Transit buses, from umbrellas to lunch sacks to briefcases," said Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for the King County Department of Transportation, Metro Transit Division, which serves Seattle and surrounding suburbs. "This is one more thing we'll be handling in this fashion."
Washington state and Colorado voters passed ballot initiatives in November making the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults legal for recreational purposes for the first time ever under state law.
The U.S. government still classifies cannabis as an illegal narcotic, and federal officials have said they are studying how to respond to the newly enacted marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado.
Nearly 20 states, including those two, have previously declared marijuana legal for medical purposes.
Police in Seattle, Washington's largest city, already have shown a newfound tolerance for pot, declining to make arrests for marijuana use in public - technically still outlawed in the state - at a number of events where pot smokers have celebrated the drug's new status.
"The voters voted, and this is the world we're living in now," Switzer said.
The transit directive, outlined in a memo circulated on Wednesday, informs drivers they can call for a supervisor to take possession of any waylaid weed on their buses if they feel uncomfortable holding onto the pot until they can finish their routes and drop it off at the lost-and-found center.
If they find more than an ounce of marijuana - the maximum amount recreational users 21 and older are now legally permitted to possess under state law - they are instructed to contact the police. If they are uncertain of the quantity, the memo instructs, they are to contact a supervisor.
Switzer said the rules included specific procedures for reuniting a stash of marijuana with the person who wants it back.
In order to successfully reclaim missing pot, a transit rider will have to say when it was lost it, on what bus route, and will have to accurately describe the appearance of the drug and its container, under the new King County Metro rules.
Switzer said he was not certain whether any marijuana has already been recovered on any of the more than 200 Metro bus routes since the new rule took effect on Wednesday.
The policy change comes days after Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed into law a measure requiring personnel quantities of marijuana left behind in stores with pharmacies in them to be destroyed or rendered unusable.
That legislation was in response to concerns that keeping marijuana on the premises of a conventional drug store would pose too flagrant a violation of federal law and hence put a pharmacy's licensing in jeopardy.
(This story corrects attribution for rules to transportation spokesman from memo in paragraph 10)
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman)