The trajectory of attitudes toward recreational pot smoking in Seattle (and Washington state) appears to bend toward ever-increasing leniency: After Seattle voters made pot possession the Seattle Police Department's "lowest law-enforcement priority" with Initiative 75 in 2003, drastically reducing the number of arrests for simple possession, state voters followed up last year, passing I-502, which legalized the recreational use and possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But the existence of different laws governing pot use statewide and locally also muddies the waters around how stringently Seattle police should enforce the new law. And the passage of I-502 could, ironically, end up pushing cops in the direction of more enforcement—and even creating a perverse incentive for the city to crack down on people caught smoking pot in public.

First, the perverse incentive: I-502, which says it's fine to smoke pot in your own home, also includes a provision making public pot consumption or display ("opening a package containing...marijuana") a civil infraction subject to a fine of $50. That money would, under I-502, go to the state.

However, the city has the right to write its own law making the same violation a local infraction. City council member Nick Licata has proposed doing just that, as well as reducing the fine to $27—the same fine that applies to drinking or having an open container in public.

"We're trying to put [city law] in conformance with how we deal with the consumption of alcohol so that the citations are equivalent," Licata says. "I think our police officers tend to err on the shy side of enforcement and it's our responsibility as council members to provide them with clear guidance to deal with an evolving form of social behavior that's now legal." 

John Schochet, deputy chief of staff for City Attorney Pete Holmes, says, "If we’re going to bear the cost [of enforcing the public-smoking provision of I-502], there will be some revenue that goes to the city as opposed to the state. This allows the city to keep any revenue, if it's enforced." The city, Schochet says, plans to "encourage a warning first and mak[e] efforts to tell people before tickets start getting issued."

Nonetheless, the money from those tickets (assuming it's actually collected) would go into city coffers—giving cops an incentive to issue them. 

As for the enforcement issue: Under Licata's proposal, police could only give someone who violated the public smoking law a ticket after issuing an initial verbal warning. Which is where things get murky.

For example: How is a "first warning" defined, and how long would a cop have to wait until going back and issuing a ticket for a second offense? If an officer warned someone to stop smoking at Westlake, walked around the block, and found them smoking again, would that be grounds for a citation? Part of SPD's approach to law enforcement downtown is to avoid issuing tickets for minor offenses to people who can't possibly pay them, because a minor citation can quickly escalate into charges for failure to appear in court, debt collection, and worse. 

SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says the department's intention is to use discretion and maintain the current policy of making marijuana possession its lowest law-enforcement priority. He doesn't see any conflict between I-75 and I-502. 

Enforcement, Whitcomb says, "is going to be discretion-based, with verbal warnings being a completely acceptable way to deal with infractions. ... We're pretty confident that most people who live here in our area are aware of what’s allowed and what isn’t but of course ... there’s also the chronic violator, pun intended, where we’re going to probably need to issue tickets if we’ve had numerous contacts with them."

The law department's Schochet agrees that the city isn't trying to crack down on pot smokers, adding, "There’s clearly no political appetite for putting people in jail for smoking a joint. That said, people don’t want the general public smoking on the streets of Seattle. If warnings are a way to decrease [the number of] people doing something that we agreed to ban with 502, we think this could be largely addressed without a lot of infractions. 

"It's about establishing norms." 

Licata also points out that his legislation requires SPD to monitor the age, race, and gender of people who receive citations under the new law, as well as the location of the citation and the reason for the stops that lead to citations. 

"We have to devote some energy to making sure that we have a reasonable system in place that treats everyone fairly; that’s why we’re collecting data," Licata says. 

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