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Bill Aims to Raise Penalties for Toking in Public

Benjamin Strahs/

It’s legal to consume marijuana in Washington, but you can’t use it just anywhere. The law confines the legal use to people’s homes. Some would like to see that changed to allow some sort of public use. But for now, a Kennewick legislator proposes to go the other direction and increase the penalties for public use.

Using marijuana in public is considered a civil infraction in Washington. The fine is $50. Republican Representative Brad Klippert’s bill proposes to raise that to $125.

Though Klippert is the sponsor of the bill, it was conceived by three Snohomish High School students working on a senior project for their government class. One of them is Michele Freschi, who told legislators at the bill’s hearing on Tuesday that he was recently walking in downtown Seattle with family members.

“We suddenly encountered a group of people who were smoking a marijuana cigarette in the street. I noticed there was a police officer right in front of us and so I went to ask him why he was not doing anything about these people smoking a marijuana cigarette in public," Freschi said. "The police officer said that, as much as it bothered him, he could not do anything since the fine was so low it was not worth fining them.”

Freschi said he was frustrated about that and so he and his friends decided to propose a bill that would raise the penalty so officers might arrest people who light up in public.

Bailey Hershberg from the pro-marijuana group Washington NORML says he opposes the bill, but says it could kick start a needed public dialogue about allowable social uses of marijuana.

“Whether that’s permitting lounges, permitting on-site consumption at certain retailers, permitting special venue permitting or special permitting from the liquor board,” Hershberg said.

The bill received its hearing in the House Commerce and Gaming Committee. A vote to move it out of committee hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Our thanks to TVW for the audio for this story.