Making Pot a Priority
City Prosecutor Wants to Start Issuing Tickets for Smoking Pot in Public
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."
Holmes's office is vague about the need to create a city ticket but writes, "The world—not to mention the federal government—is also watching to see if we're serious about both legalizing AND regulating marijuana." They add that a municipal ticket would allow Seattle to collect revenues instead of the county or the state (providing further confirmation that Holmes expects tickets to be handed out).
Bruce Harrell, chair of the city council's public safety committee, says he supports the council adopting language in the new law that says marijuana remains the city's lowest enforcement priority and tracking the racial impacts of enforcement. "The council can give the officers some policy guidance on this," he says.
If the council does create a ticket, Pugel says that while he serves his term as interim chief, tickets will "only be used as a last resort after someone has refused to put it away. It takes time and money to write a citation. Let's focus on the things that make the city safer.
"I hope you don't feel that the SPD is beating down the door to get this done," Pugel adds.