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Pot creates more issues

— As the state reviews business license applications to produce, process and sell recreational marijuana, law enforcement agencies are deciding how to handle issues associated with possession.

When it comes to public marijuana consumption local agencies plan to follow state law, which has lowered the penalty to a Class 3 civil infraction.

“Smoking marijuana in public is illegal and we have a zero tolerance policy,” Police Chief Ron Oules said.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers likened it to drinking alcohol in public, which is also illegal.

The infraction carries a fine of up to $100. Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Karl Sloan said since marijuana has was legalized, the law has been amended to exclude marijuana paraphernalia possession from being a misdemeanor, unless police can prove a suspect’s intent to deliver it to a minor.

Winthrop interim Marshal Ken Bajema said a pipe containing marijuana residue likely wouldn’t be considered paraphernalia unless a minor possesses it.

“If someone had a pipe with black residue that smelled like (marijuana) next to them in the driver’s seat and the driver appeared to be under the influence, then that pipe could be confiscated as evidence and used as part of the totality of circumstances around a DUI arrest,” Bajema said.

Bajema said that the marshal’s office “will continue to strictly enforce DUI laws including driving under the influence of marijuana. If a minor is caught with (marijuana), parents will be contacted and a possible juvenile referral form completed.”

According to Initiative 502, the driving under the influence limit for marijuana – measured by active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC – is at least 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood.

Police and deputies could have a new challenge on their hands if a proposed bill to lessen punishment for personal drug possession passes both houses of the Legislature this session.

House Bill 2116 would reduce the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. It applies not only to people caught with more than 40 grams of marijuana, but all controlled substances meant for personal use.

A misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The current law, making possession a Class C felony, carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.

“In one word I can summarize my feelings (that) this bill is even brought up: Disgusted,” Oules said.

The bill was pre-filed Dec. 10 by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. The non-profit organization that introduced the bill, Sensible Washington, said it expects at least eight legislators to co-sponsor the bill.

“We feel very strongly, as do most Americans, that the drug war has failed,” said Anthony Martinelli, Sensible Washington’s communications director. “If someone’s in possession of a very small amount of drugs, it shouldn’t be a felony.”

The organization believes taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for non-violent offenders to be imprisoned for personal drug possession, he said.

Sloan countered that longer sentences are typically given to those who have racked up a number of felonies.

“As far as a felony crime, it’s pretty much on the lowest end of punishment of that already,” he said, noting that many first offenders – or sometimes even second or third offenders – serve up to six months rather than five years. Sometimes, if a person agrees to certain terms they can avoid prison time altogether.

“There are already in place in many counties programs like drug court, and plea offers are made – for example, continuances for dismissal or continuances to a lesser crime,” Sloan said. “It’s not like those issues aren’t looked at or addressed in alternative or therapeutic court programs.”

As for the bill, he said, “I can understand where the impetus for that is coming from, but I’m not sure how much support there is for that.”

The House Public Safety Committee, of which Appleton is a member, had scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, after The Chronicle’s press time.

Sensible Washington said the proposed law does not apply to minors or people intending to sell or deliver drugs.

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