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Originally published July 25, 2013 at 8:42 PM | Page modified July 26, 2013 at 1:18 PM

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Seattle city attorney wants ban on using pot in public

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes wants to enforce the state’s prohibition on public pot consumption. The City Council holds a hearing on his proposal Friday afternoon.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Some residents in Seattle’s University Park neighborhood are fed up with pot smoke wafting into their yards and bedrooms.

“I had one complaint from a neighbor who had to close their young son’s bedroom window because they didn’t want him exposed to marijuana smoke drifting in,” said Ruedi Risler, a University Park Community Club board member. “We need to look at what enforcement can be used.”

While state voters legalized adult recreational marijuana last year, the new law enacted by Initiative 502 prohibits pot use “in view of the general public.”

Because of complaints from the likes of Risler, City Attorney Pete Holmes has proposed a city ordinance that mirrors the state prohibition, including its $103 fines.

A City Council committee will hold a public hearing on Holmes’ proposal during a 2 p.m. meeting Friday.

Without such a law, all the money from $103 fines for public use would go to the state, Holmes said. With a local law, Seattle would keep about half of the money, he said, which could be used to offset costs incurred by implementing I-502.

And, Holmes said, it’s important that Seattleites uphold the intentions of the new state law.

“We have this incredible new freedom, and there’s a responsibility that comes with it. We want the full regulatory framework of 502 to be honored, not just pieces of it,” said Holmes, a sponsor of the initiative.

There’s another reason for the ordinance, Holmes said. It would give guidance to the Seattle Police Department about how to handle public pot use.

Officers have been giving warnings to public pot smokers since the law passed in November, said police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. No fines have been issued.

There’s some potential for confusion because Seattle voters in 2003 approved Initiative 75, which made prosecuting adult possession of pot the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.

“I-75 is very much ingrained in our culture,” Whitcomb said. “Any enforcement we do with this new law will reflect that unless we’re given contrary direction by the council.”

Holmes doesn’t see a conflict between the two pro-pot initiatives.

I-75 dealt with criminal prosecution for pot possession, while I-502 makes public use a civil infraction.

“There are also concerns about exposing the general public to secondhand marijuana smoke,” he said in a written statement, “distinct from I-75’s concerns about using criminal law-enforcement tools (arrest, prosecution, jail sentences, and criminal records) to target personal marijuana use.”

Holmes said he supports a measured system of warnings to encourage pot users’ compliance with the new law before issuing fines.

Vivian McPeak, executive director of Hempfest, said he understands Holmes’ impulse to enforce the law.

“But I would hate to see our precious police resources diverted to public pot smoking on any measurable levels, especially when laws against cigarette smoking are not enforced,” McPeak said.

State law prohibits tobacco smoking within 25 feet of public entrances, exits and windows that open.

Whitcomb said police won’t be clamping down on pot use at Hempfest in August. Warnings will continue to be the preferred course of action, he said.

Though not a sponsor of Holmes’ proposal, Mayor Mike McGinn said he would work to implement it, if approved by the council.

“I understand why some would want to incorporate I-502 into the city code,” McGinn said in a statement.

“If approved, we will work with the Community Police Commission and the Seattle Police Department on how to implement this in a way that avoids inappropriate or disproportionate impacts.”

Holmes promised to “monitor all infractions for evidence of racially disproportionate applications — as plainly occurred under the prior, wrongheaded policy of criminalized marijuana prohibition.”

Whitcomb said the Police Department plans to ask University of Washington experts to review any tickets it does write to guard against that.

Holmes has also asked state officials writing rules for a seed-to-store regulated marijuana system to consider allowing private cafes in which renters and tourists — who generally cannot smoke indoors — could consume marijuana without risking a fine for public use.

Risler said that could be a good idea, particularly for renters near the university, whose landlords forbid them from smoking inside their residences, leading to some public use.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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