WASHINGTON: When voters legalized pot possession last fall, they also made it a civil infraction to use pot in plain view (just like drinking beer on the sidewalk). But Seattle police decided to give verbal warnings instead of issuing tickets—even though they could have fined violators.
As Fourth of July events approached this year, police warned they might issue a ticket under state law—if violators ignored warnings—as a “last resort for compliance,” Sergeant Sean Whitcomb explains. Still, they didn’t, and they haven’t issued a single pot ticket under state law.
But now City Attorney Pete Holmes, a sponsor of the legalization initiative, is drafting an ordinance that would create a citation for pot smoking in public under city law. If the city council approves it as part of a larger ordinance to make Seattle’s code reflect statewide pot rules, Sergeant Whitcomb says he can “almost guarantee” that cops will start issuing tickets, and interim police chief Jim Pugel, who says warnings will still be issued first, adds, “There could be some tickets.”
That’s not inherently problematic on paper—people shouldn’t be a nuisance with their weed smoking, and tickets are a breeze compared to tossing potheads in jail—but adding the city penalty raises questions about who will be cited.
“I can understand why backers of Initiative 502 want to show they are serious about treating marijuana like alcohol, including not permitting obvious public use,” explains Lisa Daugaard, a member of the city’s Community Police Commission and deputy director of the Defender Association, a public defense firm. “However, a citation strategy seems to contradict Seattle’s choice to make enforcement of pot prohibition the lowest enforcement priority with I-75,” a city measure passed by voters a decade ago. (Full disclosure: I ran the I-75 campaign.) Daugaard adds, “Every look at race and marijuana enforcement has shown that it is disproportionately black people who become the focus of such enforcement, even though white people are obviously the overwhelming majority of users.”