A different ‘greening’ for the Evergreen State

As marijuana cases are dropped, concerns are raised about Washington’s new law, which takes effect Dec. 6

WHITE SALMON — With the recent voter approval of Initiative 502, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal in Washington on Dec. 6, but the implementation of the new state law is already getting under way in some counties, including Klickitat.

“We are dismissing all [possession] misdemeanors at this point under 40 grams,” Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Lori Hoctor announced in a Nov. 13 phone call with The Enterprise.

Hoctor noted that her office’s decision to preemptively curtail prosecutions was influenced by the many jurors over the years who have expressed that throwing the book at marijuana possessors was a waste of time.

“We have jurors asking, ‘Why are you bringing these cases forward?’” Hoctor said. “People get downright mad about it.”

Hoctor noted that while her office will no longer prosecute adults who possess under 40 grams of dope, possessing more than that amount is still a felony and those cases will still be prosecuted. Cases where the individual is under the age of 21 will also be prosecuted, as I-502 only makes possession legal for those age 21 and older.

Klickitat County Sheriff Rick McComas also said his office is largely laying off those caught with relatively small amounts of pot.

“We’re going to be reasonably lenient as far as arrests go,” he said. “I just don’t think we should burden the system.”

Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Tracy Wyckoff said his department also planned on following the provisions of the initiative.

“We will be citing people if they’re over their allotted limit,” he said.

Enforcement is far from endorsement, though, and both police and prosecutors have anxiety about marijuana legalization.

“I think it has the potential to cause more problems,” McComas said of I-502, “until Washington gets into, as a whole, what the law means.”

What the law means on a federal level is one of several causes for concern, as marijuana still remains illegal in the U.S. under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The federal government has largely kept mum about the marijuana law, despite an entreaty from Gov. Christine Gregoire last week to the U.S. Justice Department asking if there was any planned litigation against the measure.

That legal gray area unnerves Wyckoff, but he maintains that the B-WSPD “will not enforce federal law.” However, he cautioned that anyone who decided to open a pot shop or a start a marijuana farm could have their property seized by the feds — regardless of state law.

Wyckoff also predicted potential White Salmon weed farmers could have their crops stolen ... and then get into the wrong hands.

“You’re going to have kids climbing over people’s fences trying to get these marijuana plants,” he warned.

Hoctor agreed the law could cause crime to rise in Klickitat County, and said county residents “already have had thefts of medical marijuana” for years.

In addition to thefts, Wyckoff’s chief concern was as marijuana possession becomes legal, more stoned drivers will take to the roads. I-502 does include a drugged driving provision that sets a legal limit of 5.0 nanograms per milliliter of whole blood. The drugged driving provision has attracted some controversy over concerns that frequent enough users could still test over the legal limit even if they haven’t recently smoked.

Wyckoff says the legal limit provision is all well and good, but judging impairment from marijuana use is not as easy as for officers as it is for alcohol use. With a lack of drug recognition experts in the area and with a lack of resources to train officers to handle the potential increase in stoned drivers, Wyckoff said his department could be outgunned.

For this reason and his belief that marijuana is a gateway drug, Wyckoff said he’s personally opposed to I-502 and doesn’t want to see White Salmon or Bingen become destinations for pot tourism.

“That’s not what I want to see, is people coming here to sit around and smoke pot,” he noted.

Wyckoff likely won’t see much of that, or at least he shouldn’t. Those who envision themselves two weeks from now plopping down on a Rheingarten Park bench to take a few bong rips of the sticky-icky and stare at Mount Hood are in for a disappointment. Consumption of marijuana products (that includes pot brownies and the like) and/or opening a package containing marijuana “in view of the general public” is illegal according to a provision of I-502.

However, the penalty for doing so is a Class 3 civil infraction, which according to its corresponding RCW, carries a maximum slap-on-the-wrist penalty of $50.

White Salmon and/or Bingen could potentially become a destination for cannabis enthusiasts, particularly due to its proximity to Oregon, where recreational use of marijuana is illegal. However, it will be awhile before anyone can legally purchase, sell, distribute or grow marijuana in Washington.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board just got out of the liquor business less than six months ago, but has been tasked with regulating, taxing and licensing marijuana production, distribution and retailing. The WSLCB has until Dec. 1, 2013, to set all this up and has stated it intends to take most, if not all, the time allotted.

Avery Pickard, executive director of the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce, says marijuana retailers could provide an economic boost to the North Shore, bringing in more business and tax revenue to the area.

“From a value judgment point of view, we see a lot of opportunity here,” Pickard noted. “No matter what, we’re always looking for profitable and dynamic businesses to join our community.”

Where a marijuana shop could be located in Bingen or White Salmon is fairly limited, though. The law states that a license can’t be issued for any premises within 1,000 feet of a public park, library, school, playground, recreation center, public transit center, child care facility, or an under-21 game arcade, which rules out a good deal of both towns’ city limits.

In Bingen, where the measure was approved by 68 percent of voters, Mayor Betty Barnes said she wouldn’t discount the revenue potential of a marijuana store despite her personal opposition; although she didn’t think the arrival of such a business would do much for the city.

“I believe it probably will be a wash as far as revenue because I think it will create some other problems,” she said. “I don’t see it as a revenue source for a city as small as ours.”

I-502 was also well-supported in the White Salmon precinct (64 percent), but Mayor David Poucher is not much of a fan. Like Wyckoff, he cited concerns of stoned drivers and like Barnes, didn’t think it would be good for business.

“I definitely don’t think it’s a money maker,” he said. “I think it’s a loser all the way around.”

Still, Poucher hoped that if a marijuana shop did come to town, tax revenues from the business would be used for law enforcement.

“If we could raise $30,000 a year for the police department, that would be great,” he said.

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