Mint Tea's pot smoking tent raises legal issues

It's against the law, but whether local police will shut it down is uncertain

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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State officials say Mint Tea's one-of-a-kind cannabis smoking tent in downtown Vancouver is illegal, but whether local law enforcement will do anything to shut it down is another story.

The restaurant held the city's first public "cannabis friendly" event on Saturday night, with dozens of customers showing up to enjoy a little live music, dance in colorful costumes or smoke some marijuana in celebration of the new moon and Leo, the zodiac sign. Overall, it was a peaceful night with not a single visit from police, said Jenna Eckert, Mint Tea's co-owner.

State liquor authorities are also weighing in on her operation, and Eckert said it might be worth giving up her liquor license to keep the smoking area open.

Vancouver Police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said officers would only get involved if they get a call about someone consuming pot on the premises in view of the general public — the only consumption-based restriction laid out in Initiative 502. And Kapp said as far as she knows, the department has had no such reports lately.

Another problem for Eckert, however, is a state Liquor Control Board rule drafted last year barring any place with a liquor license from allowing marijuana consumption on the premises, agency spokesman Brian Smith explained.

"(The) board made explicit in its rules that consuming marijuana in a liquor-licensed location is prohibited," Smith said. "A restaurant is a public place. It's not legal."

The stipulation puts Eckert in an awkward position, and she'll have to consider her options over the coming months.

"Do I drop the beer and wine license? But I feel for other places that maybe want to have both," she said, referring to a place where customers could consume marijuana and liquor.

Giving up the liquor license might not be so bad, Eckert said, as beer and wine sales make up a small portion of her business. Tea accounts for about five times as much of Mint Tea's revenue.

On any normal business day, Eckert allows her customers to hang out and bring their own pot to smoke in the tent as long as they're respectful of the others around them, she said. Fabric draped along the open-sided structure is meant to block passers-by on the sidewalk from seeing the smoke just feet away.

In that way, it might just be kept out of the public's view, Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said. Even if it's not, though, the penalty for getting caught consuming marijuana in public is about as minor as can be, he said.

According to I-502, it's a class 3 civil infraction, not even a misdemeanor. The heaviest penalty would be a $50 fine to whomever is caught consuming in public, Fairgrieve said, and police would have to witness the violation to issue a citation.

Eckert knows she's stepping out on dangerous legal ground, but that's the point. She wants to gently push the boundaries and open the discussion about where pot can be consumed.

"I think we need to look at this in the broader scope," she said. "So we've passed this law. Now, where can we do this?"

In addition to I-502 and the Liquor Control Board's rule on marijuana consumption at liquor-licensed businesses, Eckert also has to abide by the state's law on smoking in public places. According to the law, smoking in all places of employment cannot occur within 25 feet of any windows, exits or entry ways.

Clark County Public Health handles enforcement on that end. But some businesses throughout the state have found crafty ways to get around the smoking ban.