Summer is coming, which means more people will be outside enjoying warm weather, which often includes imbibing a cold beverage on the patio of a local bar or restaurant – or enjoying marijuana.
But area law enforcement wants to remind users that weed use is still illegal if it is within sight, or at least smelling distance, of the public.
Despite existing law, the sight or aroma of pot is common in downtown Spokane, so it’s evident not everyone knows the rules, or may not care.
“I think there is still a lot of misconception about what you’re allowed to do in public because marijuana is legal for those over 21,” said Paige McGowan, Tobacco, Vaping and Marijuana Prevention Coordinator for the Spokane Regional Health District. “I have heard some people say they’re just smoking with the other (tobacco) smokers in the smoking area. So there really appears to be confusion over what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
Last summer, complaints from downtown businesses and customers about public marijuana smoking led the Downtown Spokane Partnership to ask their Security Ambassadors to hand out cards explaining laws pertaining to marijuana use and possession.
The cards, designed by the SRHD, are part of the district’s “Weed to Know” education campaign that focuses on the safe and legal use of marijuana. The cards also attracted the attention of the Spokane Police Department, which began handing them out.
McGowan said close to 2,000 cards were distributed to local businesses and directly to people observed smoking marijuana in public. While there was no data to track to determine if the education campaign was successful in reducing the numbers of smokers or at least redirecting them to more private locations, McGowan says the SRHD received positive feedback.
“Anecdotally, the DSP told us they felt like it was helping,” she said.
Police officials also don’t have data on how many people they have contacted for smoking in public, but agree with the educational approach the SRHD is promoting.
Capt. Dave Singley from the SPD’s Downtown Precinct said officers can give citations for smoking marijuana in public and they also can give warnings and the SHRD cards, depending on the situation and the officer’s discretion.
“It’s certainly not at the top of our to-do list,” he said. “I haven’t established an official policy per se. It would be up to the individual officer, but my sense is that the vast majority of the time, officers are going to disseminate those cards and give warnings.”
Singley is fairly new as Captain of the Downtown Precinct. His predecessor had advocated a warning period, then ticketing offenders, but Singley prefers operating on a case-by-case basis.
Officers have already started handing out a new batch of the information cards this spring in an effort to get ahead of the issue before summer arrives.
Even if you’re not downtown, it is probably not a good idea to risk smoking in public, such as a city park. Cited adults face a $103 fine. Anyone under age 21 can also be charged with misdemeanor possession or minor in possession.
While marijuana use in public may not be one of Spokane’s biggest problems, some officials believe it can have a negative effect.
“It’s just really bad modeling for youth about marijuana,” said McGowan from the Health District. “We decided to use some local dollars to target adults because if we want kids to stop or not start smoking marijuana, we have to reach the parents to not give it to them or not to store it on the kitchen counter.”
Singley is also concerned that marijuana smokers will detract from a message that downtown Spokane is for everyone.
“We want people to feel free to bring their families downtown and if there are people smoking marijuana on the street corner it’s not going to be as enjoyable of an experience,” he said.