Riverfront Park might be the worst place to get high in Spokane.
Data from Spokane Municipal Court shows marijuana users are far more likely to be fined for consuming pot in public by a park security guard than by a Spokane police officer, though they’re unlikely to get a ticket at all.
Citywide, law enforcement officers have written 28 tickets for public consumption of marijuana since March 2013, when an ordinance prohibiting public consumption was added to the city code. Only six of those tickets were written by Spokane police officers, who say they’re usually too busy with other calls for service to deal with pot smokers.
“You’re seeing what the numbers are. That should be indicative of how much of a priority marijuana enforcement is for us,” said Spokane police Capt. Brad Arleth, who oversees the department’s downtown precinct.
Instead, most tickets have been written by Riverfront Park security officers, who have a limited police commission allowing them to cite people for certain civil infractions and make misdemeanor arrests.
It’s been legal to possess and consume marijuana in Washington since December 2012, following the passage of Initiative 502. Like alcohol, consuming pot in public is a civil infraction that may result in a ticket and a fine. The Spokane City Council raised the fines of some civil infractions, including marijuana public consumption, in August from $103 to $115.
Riverfront Park officers gained authority to cite people for public marijuana consumption in July. Since then, they’ve written 20 tickets. Park security supervisor Justin Worthington said security officers have discretion about when to write tickets and often talk to people who don’t realize public consumption isn’t allowed.
“A lot of people just thought, oh, it’s legal,” he said. His officers can choose to tell people to leave the park instead of writing a ticket. In 2014, park security ejected 32 people from the park for drug offenses, not including alcohol.
No tickets for public marijuana consumption in Spokane were written in 2013, and six were written in 2014. That was before parks security officers had authority to write those tickets.
Seattle police officers, in contrast, wrote 167 tickets for public pot consumption in 2014 alone, according to the Seattle Times. In Seattle, the offense carries only a $27 fine. Seattle’s population is about triple Spokane’s.
Two studies presented to the Seattle City Council showed black Seattleites received about 30 percent of those tickets in 2014, though they make up only 8 percent of the city’s population. One Seattle officer was responsible for nearly 80 percent of those tickets in the first half of 2014 and often wrote notes on citations calling the state’s marijuana legalization “silly,” according to the Stranger, an alternative news weekly in Seattle.
In Spokane, two black people and one American Indian have been cited for public pot consumption. The rest of the tickets went to whites. Half of the people cited were in their 20s, and about half were men. Parks security officer Kelli Jones wrote nine citations, the highest total of any officer, but two other park officers had five each.
The municipal court data, which was supplied to The Spokesman-Review after a public records request, doesn’t show whether the tickets were contested or whether the person cited ended up paying the fine.
City prosecutor Justin Bingham said he can’t remember seeing a marijuana fine come through his office, which means they’re likely not contested frequently. If someone paid the fine without contesting it, it would go straight to the court instead of being reviewed by a prosecutor, he said.
Arleth said the low number of marijuana citations doesn’t surprise him. When officers respond to calls about people smoking in public, those people usually have time to put their marijuana away before police arrive. Even if they’re clearly smoking in public, he said officers often ask them to stop and explain it’s not legal before writing a ticket.
“We don’t end up fighting a lot of people for it. Our call for service load and other priorities take precedence,” he said.
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