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Police cracking down on public marijuana smoking in downtown Spokane

In this May 5, 2015, file photo, a marijuana plant grows. (Glen Stubbe / Associated Press)
In this May 5, 2015, file photo, a marijuana plant grows. (Glen Stubbe / Associated Press)

Marijuana may be legal now, but smoking it in public isn’t. After months of educating pot smokers, the Spokane Police Department will shift to ticketing people found smoking marijuana in public in downtown Spokane.

It’s a lot like beer: It’s legal. You can possess it. You can smoke it. But you can’t do so in public. And it’s illegal for those under the age of 21.

Complaints rose this summer from downtown businesses and their customers about the number of people smoking pot in public. The response by people stopped by police, said downtown Precinct Capt. Brad Arleth – “weed’s legal now.”

“You still can’t smoke it in public,” he said. “I think that part of legalization was lost on a lot of people or ignored by people.”

In response to business concerns, the police got together with the Downtown Spokane Partnership and the Spokane Regional Health District on an education campaign a few months ago. The health district created “Weed to Know” education cards and pamphlets outlining marijuana rules and regulations and also gave tips for safe storage of the drug.

Police officers, DSP ambassadors and the marijuana shops handed out the information. The materials were paid for by marijuana sales tax money from the Washington state Department of Health.

“We handed out hundreds and hundreds of ‘Weed to Know’ cards,” Arleth said.

“It has been a growing issue,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “It’s something, pun intended, we’re trying to nip in the bud.”

The education campaign improved the situation but didn’t end it, Richard said. “It’s not a huge problem, but it is a problem nonetheless,” he added.

A couple of “hot spots” persist, Richard said, including Wall Street between Riverside Avenue and Main Avenue and the corner of Sprague Avenue and Howard Street.

“Our job is trying to create a family friendly downtown environment,” he said.

Richard said last week he came across a small group of young adults across the street from his office who were in the process of lighting up. He said he politely asked them to smoke elsewhere.

“They were very kind and packed it up and walked on,” he said. “But that isn’t always the case.”

A ticket for pot-smoking in public for those over 21 carries a fine of $103. Those age 18 to 20 found in possession can be charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and those under 18 can be charged with minor in possession of marijuana.

One of the key messages of the education campaign has been that the use of marijuana by minors is illegal.

“We don’t want to see youth get unnecessary criminal charges,” Arleth said.

The use of marijuana by adults is difficult to track but there is information on use of pot by minors, said Paige McGowan, the health district’s Tobacco, Vaping Device and Marijuana Prevention program coordinator.

In the last Healthy Youth Survey done statewide in 2014, 19 percent of 10th-graders said they had used marijuana in the last 30 days and 44 percent said they had friends who had used marijuana in the last year.

That data was collected only months after the first marijuana store opened, said McGowan, so it’s likely no longer accurate. A new survey is underway now and the results, which should be available in the spring, will show how marijuana legalization has impacted young people, she said.

A key bellwether is the 63 percent of students who said in the 2014 survey that it was wrong for someone their age to use marijuana.

“It’s going to be an interesting one to watch,” McGowan said. “Do they still think it’s wrong? Will the number go down?”

Police officers won’t be doing patrols downtown specifically for marijuana enforcement, Arleth said. But they will be looking for it on their regular patrols and they will respond to complaints by businesses and citizens.

“It is one of those things where we have to prioritize our enforcement resources,” he said.