Washington state seeks to keep marijuana out of bars

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SEATTLE — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wants the state Liquor Control Board to figure out how to stop the spread of bars allowing marijuana consumption.

The issue became a concern for Inslee after an Associated Press story about two bars, Frankie's in Olympia and Stonegate in Tacoma, letting patrons use marijuana within their walls.

Voters legalized recreational marijuana through Initiative 502. But I-502 prohibits public consumption. "We think the board needs to give this a very hard look," said Inslee spokesman David Postman. "We will implement the will of the voters and create a well-regulated industry. Washingtonians did not vote for a wide-open policy."

The board is considering its options. However, there's "a loophole in the law that doesn't allow the board to hold licensees accountable" for such activity, said board enforcement chief Justin Nordhorn.

Sharon Foster, the board's chairman, said she expects the board to try to come up with a new rule to deal with the situation.

Frankie's and Stonegate are trying to avoid obvious violations. They're getting around the ban on public use by turning parts of their bars into private clubs for marijuana users. And Stonegate is circumventing the state indoor smoking ban by having customers vaporize their marijuana, which doesn't create smoke.

Nordhorn warned board members in a meeting last week that, "Once people are aware this is a business model they're going to be popping up all over the place."

No board members said they definitely knew of any other such venues. Seattle police and King County health officials said they're not aware of any in the state's largest city.

The board's options are tricky.

It can fine liquor licensees for allowing criminal conduct on premises, such as drug dealing. But adult consumption of recreational marijuana is now legal in the state. So that tool is blunted.

It can refer indoor smoking violations to health officials. But because vaporizing is not smoking, that appears another dead end.

It can try to clamp down on patrons for public consumption, but the bar's private areas make that difficult. The state's new marijuana law bans use in public view, but doesn't define public view, Nordhorn said.

"If you've got a private room and patrons pay a fee to be a quasi member and they're not in public view you run into enforcement problems because they're not openly consuming in public," he said.

State officials are particularly concerned that the combined use of alcohol and marijuana will increase impairment of drivers. In the end, if patrons are ingesting their own personal supplies, the only enforcement action under the new state law is to issue civil infractions, with $103 fines, against customers for public use, according to Nordhorn.

That is more labor-intensive than citing bar owners for violations. It also raises questions about the public's understanding of the law, Nordhorn said, and whether an education campaign would be a more appropriate starting point than fines.

The board's enforcement officers haven't fined marijuana-using patrons yet, Nordhorn said, because they are waiting for the board to write rules implementing the new law. Officers would also want a "green light" from the board, he said.

Foster said at a board meeting Wednesday she wanted to better understand the legal options and how widespread the problem was before taking action. "If there's only two (bars) how much effort do we put into it? But if we do nothing," she said, "how much will it spread like wildfire?"

Nordhorn recommended the board write a new rule prohibiting any marijuana consumption at a liquor business. He said that process, which requires a public comment period, could take up to 90 days.

That option seems consistent with I-502, he said, which forbids new state-licensed marijuana stores from selling liquor, or anything not related to marijuana.

"I think the only thing I can say is we're proceeding at next week's board meeting with proposed rule-making to deal with the potential issue," Foster said in an interview.

Frankie Schnarrs said he has no intention of changing his bar's policy. "What the hell is the difference," he said, "if somebody smokes in the parking lot or inside?"

Stonegate's owner Jeff Call couldn't be reached.

If public marijuana use starts occurring at cannabis cafes or other establishments that don't serve liquor, Nordhorn said, the board lacks enforcement authority over those venues.

"Our enforcement division is only responsible for who we license," he said.