BELLINGHAM - Although Washington state voters have approved an initiative that removes criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the initiative also declares it illegal to smoke pot in public, or to have an open marijuana container in public.
In a Monday, Dec. 3, committee vote, the City Council approved ordinance amendments bringing Bellingham's municipal code into conformance with state law as changed by voters via Initiative 502.
The initiative allows people 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, with similar legal limits on various kinds of "marijuana-infused products." But the initiative also treats pot the way that current law treats alcohol: Using it in public, or even having an open container, subjects the offender to a "civil infraction," which amounts to a ticket and a small fine, but not arrest or jail.
The existing city ordinance declared possession of up to 40 grams a misdemeanor and said nothing about public use of an illegal product.
Assistant City Attorney Ryan Anderson, who acts as prosecutor in municipal court cases, said he wasn't sure what effect the change in the law will have on public pot smoking. Before the voters changed the law, people caught smoking pot in public could face a criminal misdemeanor charge and be arrested for pot possession. Now, the civil infraction for smoking in public will mean a ticket and eventual small fine - with the fine not spelled out in the ordinance.
Anderson said those who are already smoking pot in public in Maritime Heritage Park and other places might not be impressed with civil infractions, which they already ignore in connection with other minor offenses, such as drinking in public.
"They don't pay the fines," Anderson said. "They don't care about the infractions. ... It goes on now. To what degree it may increase, we do not know."
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