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Washington marijuana sales stings will use minors

Sun., Dec. 1, 2013

SEATTLE – A select group of minors will go into Washington’s new legal pot stores on a covert mission: to try to buy weed for the state.

To curtail youth access to legal marijuana, state officials want to use minors in pot-buying stings next year when stores are expected to open.

Charged with implementing the new law that allows adults to possess an ounce of pot, the state Liquor Control Board already uses minors in “controlled buys” of alcohol at retail stores.

The board’s enforcement chief said it makes sense to apply the same practice to pot, particularly with the federal Department of Justice watchdogging the state’s newest legal intoxicant. “Of course the feds are looking at a tightly regulated market around youth access, and I think this shows we’re being responsible,” Justin Nordhorn said.

The agency also will ask the Legislature to set penalties for minors who attempt to purchase legal pot and those who use or manufacture fake ID cards for that purpose.

Alison Holcomb, chief author of the new law, said using minors in pot-buying stings would support the state and federal emphasis on limiting youth access. But as criminal-justice director for the ACLU of Washington, Holcomb does not believe that adding criminal laws for pot possession is a good idea. She said she would prefer a focus on other prevention strategies.

The head of a statewide substance-abuse prevention group also supports the stings, as long as minors are not put in any danger. Because pot shops may open as cash-only businesses, “it seems the potential for crime is higher, so protection for minors in sting operations must be seamless,” said Derek Franklin, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.

Stings appear to be warranted in alcohol enforcement. Data for the past 17 months show alcohol retailers had an 85 percent compliance rate in youth stings. In other words, for every seven times minors working for the state tried to buy alcohol in stores, bars or restaurants, they succeeded once.

While Washington has licensed more than 20,000 locations to sell alcohol, the state plans to allow just 334 marijuana stores, making it easier, in theory, to enforce marijuana laws at them.

The pot stings would work similarly to the alcohol buys, Nordhorn said.

The state now hires 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds across the state to use in alcohol stings, according to Nordhorn. About 30 minors, both men and women, work for the liquor board. They get paid about $10 an hour, Nordhorn said, and they tend to be students interested in law enforcement and substance-abuse prevention.

He declined to make any available for an interview. “We try to protect their identities because we don’t want anyone knocking on their door,” he said.

Nordhorn plans to send minors into pot stores to try to purchase products. It’s the store clerks’ responsibility to make sure customers are 21. The law does not even allow minors in stores.

When asked for ID, the minors would provide their real IDs. In Washington, those under 21 have driver’s licenses with a vertical design unlike licenses for adults, which have a horizontal layout.

When clerks see the vertical design, they should know to check the license closely. (You could be over 21 and still have a vertical layout if you got that license when you were a minor, Nordhorn notes.)

Nordhorn said some clerks ask about age but fail to actually read the date of birth on a license. “Most mistakes aren’t intentional. The sales are mostly oversights on the clerks’ part,” he said.

Some clerks have tried to confiscate IDs, which is not appropriate, he said. “We recommend you don’t get into conflict with a minor; just refuse the sale and have them leave,” he added.

If there is a pot sale, the minor would go outside, where an enforcement officer would be waiting, Nordhorn said. The purchased pot would be secured as evidence, and the officer would go in and cite the store for a violation.

The penalty for a first offense is a 10-day suspension of a store’s license or a $2,500 fine. A second violation in a three-year window would lead to a 30-day license suspension; a third violation in three years would cost a business its license.

The clerk also could be charged with a felony, as it remains a crime to furnish minors with any kind of pot in Washington.

Franklin would like to see IDs checked at the entrances to pot stores, rather than at the point of sale.

Nordhorn said that’s problematic because stores likely would have to hire staff just for that purpose. Instead, he said, he advises liquor stores to check right away the IDs of youthful customers.

Nordhorn wants the Legislature to establish criminal penalties for minors trying to buy legal pot, people using fake IDs to try to buy legal pot, and anyone manufacturing fake IDs for that purpose.

Now there are no penalties for teenagers who try to buy legal pot, he explained. He’d like the offense to be a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, and likewise for making or using fake IDs to buy pot.

Under liquor laws, it’s a misdemeanor to use a fake ID and a gross misdemeanor to manufacture a bogus one. The Liquor Control Board is asking the Legislature to formally authorize the use of minors in pot-buying stings with a new law.

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