Public marijuana: No tickets in Seattle, but maybe elsewhere

Dec 6, 2012

 (Updated at 10pm)

In Seattle, you're more likely to get a parking ticket than a marijuana smoking ticket.

Marijuana enthusiasts rejoiced in public on Thursday night – lighting up at Seattle Center’s International Fountain. In front of the spraying water and music, people were smoking from pipes and even big glass bongs.

"We're celebrating freedom tonight. I'm out here with my community," said a man who gave his name as Eric. Others came because it just sounded like fun, when they heard about it on Facebook. 

Outdoor smoking is not supposed to be legal, since the voter approved law only legalized private consumption.

But, for now, the official guidance to all 1300-plus officers is: If you see someone consuming pot in public, give a verbal warning only.

The city is in a unique position, because in 2003 voters approved a local measure that said marijuana is the lowest priority for law enforcement. 

"So, why would you expect us to go out and aggressively write people ticket for public marijuana use?" says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department.

People are still learning the rules about public vs. private consumption, he says.

"When laws change, there's usually a long period of time," before enforcement starts, he says. After the legal debate, there's a period of codification, then training for police, and education."

So, police were ignoring informal celebrations at Seattle Center by pot smokers.

As for people who might occasionally smoke outside buildings or in parks -- that’s similar to cigarette smoking, or drinking a beer, where it's not allowed. Outside the city, many other agencies – including the King County Sheriff’s Office and Tacoma Police – say it’s up to each deputy to use discretion, just like they do for writing speeding tickets. 

Statewide, some agencies may follow Seattle’s lead and ignore public consumption, says Mitch Barker of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. That's because of a technicality -- there’s disagreement among some judges and prosecutors about what type of infraction it should be if someone’s consuming marijuana in public, and exactly how it should be ticketed.

Some agencies read the initiative as saying it should be a class-3 civil infraction, which carries a maximum $50 penalty. But is it actually a $50 penalty? And can administrative fees be added?