Ingrid Campos and Eli Ramos, right, share a blunt during a marijuana smoke out event in Seattle, Washington, on Thursday.

Pot smokers lit up in Washington state as recreational marijuana became legal in a historic first for the US, clouded by the fact that federal law still bans the practice.

Midnight pot parties were reported across the western US state as a new law came into force on Thursday after a November 6 referendum to legalise private consumption of marijuana for recreational use.

About 200 people gathered at midnight outside Seattle’s Space Needle, a futuristic tower that dominates the skyline, to light up and celebrate their newfound freedom.

“You can smoke and not feel like a criminal. It’s really no different than having a beer or something. In fact, I think it’s less dangerous,” Calvin Lee told the local Kiro 7 television station.

The law made it legal for those over 21 to possess and use up to 28 grams of marijuana. A number of US states have already legalised pot for medicinal purposes, but Washington is the first state allowing it purely for fun.

Colorado residents approved a similar law last month, on the same day President Barack Obama was re-elected, but its pot lovers will have to wait until January 5 to light up with impunity.

But even while Washington’s marijuana fans partied, the limits of the new law were underlined: the Space Needle gathering was technically illegal, since the new law allows only private, not public, consumption of weed.

Officers took no action, and the Seattle police department said that for the moment it would only issue verbal warnings, even though in theory they could impose $50 (about R435) fines on those smoking marijuana in public.

Police drew praise for a blog – which became an instant internet hit – taking a light-hearted approach to explaining exactly what is and isn’t legal under the new law.

The Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle includes a link to a Lord of the Rings video clip titled The Finest Weed, showing wizard Gandalf blowing meditative smoke rings with Bilbo Baggins.

“In keeping with the spirit of [the new law], the department’s going to give you a generous grace period to help you adjust to this brave, new, and maybe kinda stoned world we live in,” wrote the police blogger.

“Does this mean you should flagrantly roll up a mega-spliff and light up in the middle of the street? No.

“But 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.”

More broadly, the new Washington and Colorado laws run counter to US federal law, which still bans recreational use of marijuana across the country.

“Regardless of any changes in state law growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” noted the US Attorney’s Office in Seattle. – Sapa-AFP