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If Washington voters approve a ballot measure this fall legalizing marijuana, it would bring big changes – not just in the justice system, but in our communities.We can expect hundreds of official marijuana stores and fewer drug arrests. What about advertising? Night-life? Driving?KNKX is exploring how legalization might impact daily life – even if you never touch the drug.In our series If it’s legal: Five ways legal pot could affect your life, we consider how things could change for all of us.

Public marijuana: No tickets in Seattle, but maybe elsewhere

Keith Seinfeld

 (Updated at 10pm)

In Seattle, you're more likely to get a parking ticket than a marijuana smoking ticket.

Marijuana enthusiasts rejoiced in public on Thursday night – lighting up at Seattle Center’s International Fountain. In front of the spraying water and music, people were smoking from pipes and even big glass bongs.

"We're celebrating freedom tonight. I'm out here with my community," said a man who gave his name as Eric. Others came because it just sounded like fun, when they heard about it on Facebook. 

Outdoor smoking is not supposed to be legal, since the voter approved law only legalized private consumption.

But, for now, the official guidance to all 1300-plus officersis: If you see someone consuming pot in public, give a verbal warning only.

The city is in a unique position, because in 2003 voters approved a local measure that said marijuana is the lowest priority for law enforcement. 

"So, why would you expect us to go out and aggressively write people ticket for public marijuana use?" says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department.

People are still learning the rules about public vs. private consumption, he says.

"When laws change, there's usually a long period of time," before enforcement starts, he says. After the legal debate, there's a period of codification, then training for police, and education."

So, police were ignoring informal celebrations at Seattle Center by pot smokers.

As for people who might occasionally smoke outside buildings or in parks -- that’s similar to cigarette smoking, or drinking a beer, where it's not allowed. Outside the city, many other agencies – including the King County Sheriff’s Office and Tacoma Police – say it’s up to each deputy to use discretion, just like they do for writing speeding tickets. 

Statewide, some agencies may follow Seattle’s lead and ignore public consumption, says Mitch Barker of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. That's because of a technicality -- there’s disagreement among some judges and prosecutors about what type of infraction it should be if someone’s consuming marijuana in public, and exactly how it should be ticketed.

Some agencies read the initiative as saying it should be a class-3 civil infraction, which carries a maximum $50 penalty. But is it actually a $50 penalty? And can administrative fees be added?

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.