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How might St. Paul enforce a ban on public marijuana use? Look to Seattle for a preview

Seattle’s experience with a ban on public pot use could offer lessons to Minnesota cities now grappling with whether to limit pot use in public places, and a possible preview to how enforcing those bans could turn out here.

Alison Holcomb, co-author of state Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana, making a purchase at Cannabis City during the first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Seattle in 2014.
Alison Holcomb, co-author of state Initiative 502 legalizing marijuana, making a purchase at Cannabis City during the first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Seattle in 2014.
REUTERS/Jason Redmond

There’s an infamous tale in Seattle that still, nearly a decade later, elicits groans from the activists and officials who worked to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington state.

Unlike in Minnesota, Washington’s law had explicitly banned any marijuana use in public, and in the first half of 2014, the Seattle Police Department issued 83 tickets for public consumption. As it turned out, 66 of those citations were written by a lone Seattle police officer who openly disagreed with the law. We know this because he wrote about his disdain for it right on the tickets, scrawling a note on one that called the new law “silly.”

“I’ll never forget that officer,” recalled Pete Holmes, who was not only city attorney at the time, but had helped write the statewide ballot measure legalizing marijuana that the officer so disliked. “He even addressed [other tickets] to me: ‘Petey Holmes.’” The county sheriff later made Holmes a nametag with that joking moniker on it, Holmes said.

The nickname was good for a chuckle, but Holmes told MinnPost the episode “hit on all the things that we were concerned about.” Black men received a disproportionate share of Seattle’s tickets, which came with a $27 fine. And nearly all of the citations were issued in known hotspots for homelessness.

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Nine years later, the data suggest a very different story.

In 2022, Seattle police wrote only two tickets for public marijuana use. So far this year, they’ve only written one.

What’s happening in St. Paul – and the lessons cities can learn from Seattle

Seattle’s experience with the ban on public pot use – from its aggressive early response to its more-lenient approach of recent years – could offer lessons to Minnesota cities now grappling with whether to limit pot use in public places, and a possible preview to how enforcing those regulations could turn out here.

Though the state’s new marijuana law limits smoking or vaping indoors, Minnesota is one of the few states that permits marijuana use in a wide range of public places – like parks, sidewalks, streets or bus stops – unless local governments specifically create rules against it.

An especially passionate debate has flared up in St. Paul. On Wednesday, City Council members heard public testimony on a proposal that would prohibit both marijuana and tobacco smoking or vaping near entrances of public buildings and in at least portions of city parks.

St. Paul resident Damone Presley speaking in favor of restrictions on marijuana use in public spaces during a city council hearing on Wednesday.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes
St. Paul resident Damone Presley speaking in favor of restrictions on marijuana use in public spaces during a city council hearing on Wednesday.
During Wednesday’s hearing, supporters framed St. Paul’s proposal as a common-sense move to protect the public from secondhand smoke, just as city rules currently do for tobacco smoke.

“We have made so much progress,” said Sylvia Amos, an anti-tobacco advocate. “Now is not the time to fall off the cliff of responsibility and let everyone smoke whatever or wherever they please, disregarding and disrespecting the health of those around them.”

Before legalization, a 2020 study by the ACLU found that Black Minnesotans were five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents – despite national statistics suggesting Black and white people use at roughly the same rates.

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The new marijuana law was meant to correct injustices like these. Critics raised concerns that if St. Paul leaders crack down too hard, some of these same inequities could creep back.

Leili Fatehi
Leili Fatehi
“Much like lurking and spitting laws,” said Leili Fatehi, an attorney and lobbyist who helped advance Minnesota’s legalization law, “these suggested types of ordinances can perpetuate unjust law enforcement practices that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.”

Washington’s law was tougher on public consumption than the ordinance under consideration in St. Paul. Council members are still working out the exact details, but the final version will likely allow for smoking and vaping on sidewalks and streets. Most St. Paul council members also expressed openness to enforcing the ordinance through verbal warnings and out-of-court fines rather than petty misdemeanor charges.

Despite the differences, Seattleites remember many of the same tensions were present a decade ago, when they were first feeling out how to enforce their state’s ban on public consumption.

In Douglas Hiatt’s mind, too little has changed. The activist and Seattle criminal defense attorney has long pushed for an even more sweeping legalization, with few, if any limits on public marijuana consumption – only to be disappointed by “really, really weak reformers.”

“Politicians don’t understand,” Hiatt said. “People are a lot farther along than they are on this. They just are. The vast majority of people here do not believe in reefer madness anymore … What’s the big deal? What are you afraid of?”

Seattle’s heavy hand against public pot use

In Nov. 2012, voters in both Washington and Colorado approved the nation’s first ballot initiatives that legalized recreational marijuana. Both states’ initiatives made public consumption off-limits.

Holmes, who helped write Washington’s Initiative 502, said the bans were a political necessity. Opponents would have used public marijuana smoking as part of a “parade of horribles” campaign against the legalization initiative. Plus, the bans were consistent with other laws against carrying open alcohol containers outside and regulating tobacco smoking indoors.

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“There’s lots of precedents elsewhere,” Holmes said, adding, “and this [ban] was one that polled very well – and I make no apologies for it. We live in a democracy.”

Pete Holmes
Pete Holmes
Holmes had first won the Seattle City Attorney job in 2009 on a campaign promise to end prosecutions of simple marijuana possession. He felt harsh enforcement of drug laws had ravaged communities of color.

Legalizing marijuana was the next logical step in ending that vicious cycle, Holmes believed. If enacting a low-level penalty for smoking in public would put an end to more serious marijuana charges, that might be worth the trade.

The 2014 case of the lone police officer writing the majority of the city’s public consumption tickets proved to be a troubling beginning to Seattle’s enforcement of the law. The police department opened an inquiry into the officer. Hoping for a “clean slate,” Holmes tossed all 83 tickets from the first half of the year: “Let’s use this as a learning moment,” he figured.

However, little changed in the second half of 2014: Seattle police issued another 85 citations – and again, Black people were disproportionately likely to get a citation for marijuana use. Despite making up only 7.8% of Seattle’s population, Black people received 27% of the tickets in the last six months of 2014.

Soon, the number of public consumption tickets would skyrocket. In 2016, Seattle Municipal Court data showed police issued 612 marijuana consumption citations – rivaling the number of charges filed for DUI that year.

Hiatt attributed the increase to a number of factors. For one thing, more recreational dispensaries were opening at the time; in 2016, Washington state officials allowed a near-doubling in the number of pot shop licenses. Public health officials were also sounding alarms over the sharp increase in vaping and e-cigarette use.

Another factor is likely to ring a bell for Minneapolis or St. Paul: Most of Seattle’s tickets in 2016 were issued to people downtown. In 2016, anxieties were running high that Seattle’s downtown was “dying” – and Hiatt said the new marijuana law was both a scapegoat for deeper problems in the city’s urban core, and a tool for patrolling the vulnerable populations who spent time there.

“It’s just stupid, but we continue to do this kind of stuff,” Hiatt said. “Oh, we’ll write a bunch of tickets to appease white people that live in valuable housing.’ So much of it gets tied up with other issues around racism and homelessness.”

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In Seattle, very few public pot tickets post-pandemic

But in 2017, the number of public consumption tickets dropped by nearly half, and then by two-thirds a year later. In the wake of the pandemic, enforcement of public consumption charges have dropped to near-zero levels, according to data from Seattle Municipal Court spokesperson Gary Ireland.

Seattle police issued just 26 public pot smoking tickets in 2020. In 2021, they issued none.

“Policing changed in Seattle after the riots,” wrote police department spokesperson Lt. John O’Neil. “In general, officers had to use their time for the most serious crimes for many reasons.”

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a federal consent decree, the same type of reform process now underway in Minneapolis – but just this week, a federal judge ruled Seattle’s police had successfully implemented most of the court-ordered improvements. Holmes suggested the drop in marijuana tickets may reflect officers’ embrace of de-escalation techniques that can keep stops on the street from going awry.

“I think some of those things are paying off,” suggested Holmes, who lost his bid for a fourth term as Seattle City Attorney in 2021. “They recognized, ‘How important is this? Do we have more important things to do [than writing public pot consumption tickets]?’”

Other issues are likely at play, too. Concerns about fentanyl and the opioid crisis have overtaken any anxieties about marijuana in Seattle, Hiatt said.

The Seattle Police Department is also shorthanded. About 600 officers have resigned since 2020, and the department has only reportedly filled around one-third of those empty positions.

“Officers’ time has to be used for life safety and other pressing issues,” O’Neil said. “Traffic citations, like marijuana citations, have dropped as well.”

Holmes said the broader lesson is that arrests and citations for marijuana infractions were symptoms of a larger problem: government’s inability to address systemic ills like racism and homelessness, or to provide sufficient housing, mental health services or other social safety net programs.

“You’re trying to use criminal law to make up for policymakers’ failure to provide these other social needs,” Holmes said. “We don’t want to be part of the problem by pretending you can arrest your way out of it by just throwing people in jail knowing that that doesn’t help any of those problems.”

St. Paul’s approach: ‘We want compliance, not penalties’

After Wednesday’s debate, St. Paul City Council members appear to be pushing for an approach to public pot smoking that would seek to avoid the aggressive enforcement Seattle saw in the early years.

Ward 3 Councilmember Chris Tolbert
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Ward 3 Councilmember Chris Tolbert
Ward 3 Councilmember Chris Tolbert initially proposed banning marijuana smoking and vaping in any “city controlled public space,” aiming to continue St. Paul’s long track record of legislating against secondhand tobacco smoke.

The proposal was no more sweeping than proposals in cities like Lakeville, Detroit Lakes or Alexandria, where marijuana use is now effectively limited to private residences, yards or patios and other private property off-limits to the general public. But after outcry over the broad ordinance, Tolbert offered an amendment Wednesday that would narrow St. Paul’s ban significantly to cover only city parks and areas within 25 feet of building entrances or ventilation intakes.

Ward 4 Councilmember Mitra Jalali offered additional amendments that would whittle down the ban in parks to only areas around “youth activity areas,” such as playgrounds and athletic fields, but allowing marijuana consumption elsewhere in parks, including on trails.

Jalali also offered an amendment that would remove references to petty misdemeanor penalties in the ordinance. A petty misdemeanor – a civil infraction on the level of a traffic ticket – is technically not a criminal charge, though Jalali argues that the consequences attached to a ticket for marijuana use could still have serious effects for the recipient.

St. Paul Councilmember Mitra Jalali
St. Paul Councilmember Mitra Jalali
Instead, Jalali proposed making a “request for voluntary compliance” the preferred method of enforcement.

Ideally, Jalali said anyone who doesn’t comply would receive an “administrative citation” – a city-issued fine that wouldn’t show up on the recipient’s court records. However, despite other city regulations making reference to these citations as a possible sanction, the city doesn’t currently have the authority in its charter to issue them, and creating the administrative sanction will take time.

Still, other council members appeared open to the idea – and even to passing the ordinance against public marijuana use without any administrative or civil penalty attached.

“We want compliance,” Tolbert said, “not penalties.”